MURPHYSBORO — The man convicted of murdering a 19-year-old Southern Illinois University student has a new lawyer, according to Jackson County Court documents.
Gaege Bethune, 24, has hired Steven Greenberg and T. Liam Kelly of the Greenberg Trial Lawyers office from Chicago to replace former Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Wepsiec as his defense attorney.
The Jackson County Circuit Court granted the change of attorney on Thursday and a motion was filed for an extension of time to prepare for the case and file an additional post-trial motion. There has been no action taken on the new motion.
Bethune was found guilty on June 14 following a nine-day trial of first-degree murder in the death of Pravin Varughese. Varughese’s body was found on Feb. 18, 2014, in the woods on the east side of Carbondale, south of Illinois 13 near Buffalo Wild Wings, five days after he got into an altercation with Bethune.
Evidence at trial showed that Bethune and Varughese fought on the side of the road, outside of Bethune’s vehicle. When an Illinois State Police trooper arrived on the scene, Varughese ran into the woods, where he died of hypothermia.
When the jury convicted Bethune on that first-degree murder charge, it agreed with the prosecutor’s argument that Bethune committed aggravated battery when he fought with Varughese, thus causing his hypothermic death. The prosecution had also charged Bethune with another count of first-degree murder based on robbery, but the jury acquitted Bethune on that charge.
Greenberg said in an interview Friday that the goal is to undo Bethune’s conviction.
Gaege Bethune tries to fire his lawyer 8 days before he is scheduled to be sentenced for Varughese death
“I don’t think that under any circumstance a young adult should be convicted of murder for getting in a relatively innocuous fist fight,” he said. “I don’t think that is the purpose of the felony murder statute.”
He said there isn’t an independent felonious purpose as was charged in the indictment, because the jury also acquitted Bethune of robbery.
The motion for an extension says Bethune was “wrongfully convicted” on the felony murder charge with a predicate of aggravated battery.
In the motion, the defense says an aggravated battery resulting in the immediate death of the victim cannot suffice as the basis of a felony murder of that same victim. The defense is arguing the aggravated battery charge cannot support the verdict of felony murder because the conduct of the offense is already inherent in the act of killing.
The defense’s motion also said that when Illinois State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor David Robinson argued that Varughese may have suffered from a concussion when he ran into the woods. However, the motion said there was no medical testimony to say he did have a concussion and any argument that said the victim became disoriented because it is speculative.
Additionally, the motion said the arrival of the Illinois State Police trooper to the scene where the fight between Bethune and Varughese had fought caused a break in the causal chain of events, and absolved Bethune of guilt. The motion said this was not argued at trial.
Another trial error, according to the defense, was that Varughese may have been in trouble at SIU and the subject of disciplinary proceedings, which may have been an intervening reason why he ran into the woods when the police arrived. The motion said this was never investigated pretrial or brought up during the trial.
Robinson has mailed his response to the Jackson County Courthouse, in which he objected to delaying the case at all. That file was not officially in record at the courthouse by the end of Friday.
However, Robinson called Greenberg’s motion “a joke” on Friday.
“It is totally divorced from the reality of the case,” he said.
Robinson said he isn’t sure how the judge will move forward with the case because of the new attorney entering an appearance, but there is a conference call set for Monday morning to determine how to move forward.
As of Friday, the sentencing date is still set for 9 a.m. Aug. 15.
Greenberg once represented Drew Peterson, who was convicted of killing his third wife in 2012 and of solicitation of murder for hire in 2016 for attempting to have the Will County State’s Attorney killed. Greenberg was fired as Peterson’s attorney in September of 2012, according to a NBC 5 Chicago report.