A La Salle man, once charged with murder in the 2019 death of his infant son, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a reduced charge and received a 20-year sentence.
Kenneth Herbst, 25, made an unscheduled appearance in La Salle County Circuit Court and entered a negotiated plea. Prosecutors dropped charges of first-degree murder and instead presented Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. with a newly-filed count of aggravated battery to a child, a Class X felony, carrying six to 30 years with no possibility of probation.
Herbst then pleaded guilty to the new count and accepted a 20-year term, which is subject to a requirement he serve at least 85% of his time. With a little more than two years credit for time served, Herbst will be released from prison around his 40th birthday.
In open court, Chief Deputy Assistant La Salle County State’s Attorney Greg Sticka said had the case gone to trial (it was set for June 14), the state would have called a medical examiner who determined the 2-month-old died from “brain and other injuries” from a lack of oxygen. Herbst, Sticka said, sat for a police interview and admitted he “muffed” the child with a pillow when he couldn’t get the “fussy” infant to go to sleep.
Herbst declined an opportunity to address the court before being escorted back to jail. He will be transported soon to the Illinois Department of Corrections. A parole date is pending, but he could be out in late 2035 or early 2036.
Attorneys in the case had stated at several previous hearings that they were in negotiations. Court records show a dispute over medical evidence that presented risks for both the state and the defense had the case gone to a judge or jury. Specifically, the autopsy revealed a rib injury found to have been healing prior to the baby’s death and perhaps not sustained when Herbst applied the pillow.
It was a piece of evidence that raised the stakes for both sides. Had prosecutors used it to show a pattern of abuse, Herbst could have faced a murder conviction and mandatory prison sentence up to 60 years. Had the defense, which summoned an outside expert, shown it to be incidental then Herbst could have angled for involuntary manslaughter, drawn no more than 14 years and been released before end of the decade.
“This is a tragic situation that I wish would have never taken place,” said La Salle County State’s Attorney Todd Martin. “With the conflicting evidence, given the potential of a manslaughter instruction in this case, we felt it was in the state’s best interest to enter into this agreement.”
Public Defender Tim Cappellini said he was “happy” to have helped negotiate an agreement that avoided a murder conviction and lengthier sentence. He said prosecutors were “very reasonable” in their discussions.
“It was a terrible situation.”