By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
As a Mercer County common pleas court judge, Christopher J. St. John often is faced with having to balance the details of a horrific crime with letters from the defendant’s friends and family members espousing what a good person the defendant is and how out of character the crime is.
Such is the case of Devine A. Campbell, 19, of Farrell, who was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years to life for being an accomplice in the murder of William Basilone Jr.
Campbell presented 15 letters from people who described him as respectful, loving, athletic and loved.
St. John looked at Campbell and asked, “Who do I have in front of me?”
“I’m not the person everybody makes me out to be,” Campbell responded.
“Who are you?” St. John continued.
“Devine Campbell?” Campbell said.
“Who’s Devine Campbell?” St. John prodded.
What little Campbell said was against the advice of his attorney, leaving St. John to muddle through documentary evidence to answer the question.
St. John looked at Campbell’s criminal history, which started with a juvenile conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia in 2008, and included a minor assault on another juvenile.
During that time, Campbell took up smoking pot and drinking vodka.
While on probation, Campbell stopped going to school, which led to a series of placements and a boot camp-style program.
While in boot camp, he sent a letter to Joshua L. Stewart that talked about hurting his probation officer.
In the fall of 2011, shortly after Campbell completed boot camp, Campbell and Stewart embarked on a string of five robberies in Farrell, two of which resulted in someone getting shot, said Mercer County District Attorney Robert G. Kochems.
“It was an escalating series of robberies for insignificant amounts of money,” Kochems said.
After the Dec. 30, 2011, murder of Basilone outside his bar – Stewart has been convicted and given a life sentence as the shooter – and the arrests of Stewart and Campbell within the week, “things stopped, for a time, in the city of Farrell,” Kochems said.
St. John said he cannot take into account information in relation to the other robberies because Campbell has not been convicted of any of them.
However, Campbell left a wake of trouble in the Mercer County Jail that St. John sees as proof of the escalation that Kochems had talked about.
The jail staff labeled Campbell’s adjustment as poor, with 10 misconducts including two assaults, threats to staff and stealing food, St. John said.
St. John also agreed that Campbell has “manipulated” the system during the pendancy of his case, resulting in time spent addressing issues in hearings that probably resulted in little or no substantive outcomes.
St. John heard from Basilone’s girlfriend, Marggie Burger, who described Basilone as kind and decent, a man who stood up for his convictions and deflected credit for countless acts of charity.
“He was a force for good when he was living and he will remain so for years to come,” she said.
“The man he murdered would have given him the shirt off his back if he had asked,” said Basilone’s sister, Mary Jo DePreta.
She asked St. John to “show Devine Campbell the mercy he showed my brother.”
Defense attorney J. Jarrett K. Whalen apologized to the Basilone family on behalf of Campbell, and to the court for not being able to steer Campbell to the right track after representing him for several years.
Campbell is a “product” of the societal desensitization to gun violence, Whalen said.
“I would like to apologize for the loss to the Basilone family and to my family as well,” Campbell said on his own behalf.
Later, in response to a question from St. John, Campbell admitted to “poor friend choice,” but added, “I’m not here to blame anybody. I take the responsibility for what I’ve done.”
St. John said Campbell had showed no remorse prior to Wednesday.
“I question it’s genuineness,” he said, noting that he doubted Campbell’s testimony that he tried to get Stewart to leave the area of Basilone’s bar after they found the bar locked and that they would not be able to rob it.
Campbell was convicted Nov. 21 by a jury of one count of second-degree murder and two counts each of robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery.
The murder charge for someone younger than 18 – Campbell was 17 at the time of the murder – carries a mandatory minimum of 30 years to life in prison. St. John sentenced him to 35 years to life, noting that he knew of no prohibition against sentencing someone beyond the mandatory minimum.
St. John made the sentences for the robberies and conspiracies run concurrently to that of the murder sentence.
Whalen said Campbell likely will appeal, which was the reason he advised Campbell not to say anything.