When Timera Branch gunned the accelerator on her Chrysler Imperial almost exactly two years ago, crushing to death a 17-year-old boy against the wall of an Elgin apartment building, those few seconds of impulse cost a family their son.
And in effect, those seconds also cost Branch’s own three children their mother, as Judge Allen Anderson sentenced Branch Wednesday to 34 years in prison.
Anderson in August convicted Branch, 35, of Streamwood, of first-degree murder after a trial in which Branch went on the stand to explain what happened that day, but presented hardly any defense to the charges.
Driving up to the Burnham Schoolhouse apartments on the afternoon of Nov. 8, 2009, Branch saw John Wesley Keyes III – a teenager known as “Little John” who had struck her own son in the face at a party the night before – standing near the building. She accelerated the car and smashed into the teen so hard that the decorations on his belt buckle matched an impression on the car’s bumper.
Anderson on Wednesday described the crime as “outrageous, unnecessary and almost beyond description.”
But in mitigation of that, he said, Branch had no previous convictions for anything except traffic offenses, and the killing happened as a result of circumstances that are not likely to recur.
“A frightening lack of self-control is why we are here today,” Anderson said.
He said that “so often as I sit here,” hearing various violent cases, “I silently wonder, ‘What were you thinking when you did what you did?’ Too often the answer is that there was no thought involved, no restraint, no consideration of how this action that took seconds would alter someone’s life forever, and alter your own.”
Anderson said that under Illinois law, Branch must serve the entire 34 years, with no time off for good behavior. She will, however, get credit for the two years she has been in the Kane County jail since being arrested minutes after the murder.
Offering one last plea in her own behalf before the sentencing, Branch – wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and metal shackles – told the judge she was just a mother trying to defend her son after multiple attacks against him from bullies.
“That is not who I am,” she said.
Turning around to look into the eyes of Keyes’ father, John Keyes Jr., and the boy’s mother, Dionne Harris, Branch said, “I would just like to tell the Keyes family that I am terribly sorry for what I did to their loved one. Why I did it, I don’t know. I just snapped. I did out of love for my child, to be his protector. It was just repeated bullying on my son.”
That provoked Keyes Jr. to shout back at her, “Not my son!”
In the hallway after the trial, Keyes Jr. explained that he himself had been bullied as a child and he had always emphasized to Little John that the boy should never bully anybody else.
“I couldn’t sit there and let her call my son a bully,” he said. “If her son was being bullied, it wasn’t by John Wesley Keyes III.”
Keyes said Branch “can take her apology and stick it,” adding he thought the 34-year sentence is “a travesty. Sixty years would be more like it. She’ll be only 68 when she gets out. I have a friend who’s in his 90s and still going strong. After doing something like this, she should never get out.”
In tearful testimony before the sentencing, the elder Keyes said Little John was “one of the reasons I got up in the morning. … This crime took away my chance to watch him become a husband and a father.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Greg Sams had recommended a 48-year sentence. Branch’s attorney, Liam Dixon, asked for the minimum 20 years. Dixon noted that “20 years is already a very long time. In 20 years, her children will have grown up” without her.
LaCorbek Benion, the then-16-year-old son of Branch who allegedly had been struck by Little John Keyes the night before the crime, also has been charged with first-degree murder. He accompanied his mother to the murder scene in a second car that day and, according to some witnesses, he struck the crushed body of young Keyes with a baseball bat after the car crash.
Now 18, Benion is living in Elgin under house arrest. No trial date has been set in his case.
Dixon said Branch’s two younger children have gone to live with relatives in Arkansas.
Some 20 members of the Keyes family attended the hearing, as did about 25 teens from a law class at Burlington Central High School.