White Zion cop's shooting of black teen called justified; family calls it murder
The fatal shooting of a Zion teenager last month by a police officer was justified, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim announced Thursday, sparking complaints from the boy's family and calls for a major protest outside county headquarters Friday.
Nerheim said Justus Howell, 17, who was black, was turning toward police with a gun in his right hand during a foot chase April 4 when he was hit by two bullets fired by veteran officer Eric Hill, who is white, at 24th Street and Galilee Avenue in Zion.
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Watching the video, it is not readily apparent that Howell turned with a gun in his hand. The video is at www.dailyherald.com.
Howell was taken to Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan, where he was pronounced dead, authorities said.
"Based on the entire investigation I conclude that Officer Hill was justified in his decision to use deadly force," Nerheim said. "Deadly force should be used only as a last resort. Officer Hill provided Howell ample opportunity to drop the weapon and only fired when he felt that his life and the life of his fellow officer was in danger."
Howell's grandmother, Alice Howell, called the decision "unbelievable."
"Like I said, a blind man can see. This was an unjustified homicide," she said. "They murdered my grandson."
"We're to a point where we have been backed into a corner," said Ralph Peterson, who protested Nerheim's decision Thursday in front of the Lake County courthouse. "There's plenty of unrest out there."
Peterson said there is another protest planned for 3 p.m. Friday in front of the Lake County Government Center. There were no immediate reports of unrest in Zion after Nerheim's announcement.
Nerheim said the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force conducted an extensive investigation into the shooting of Howell. He said the Zion Police Department did not participate in any aspect of the investigation, and the task force brought in the FBI to review and monitor the inquiry.
The examination involved 22 investigators, about 1,000 investigative hours, 29 witnesses and 50 leads followed, Nerheim said. Portions of the investigation were sent to independent agencies for further review, and 98 pieces of evidence were collected, he said.
The investigation showed that Howell met up with Tramond Peet, 18, of Lindenhurst at the Salem Grocery Store in Zion for a gun purchase just before the shooting, according to Nerheim. The two left the grocery store and walked to a nearby alley to make the sale, he said.
Howell asked Peet to show him the gun, Nerheim said, and Peet handed Howell a silver Kimber 9 mm handgun that was stolen from a home in Lake Villa, Nerheim said.
The two began to struggle, Nerheim said, and at one point, Howell pointed the gun at Peet and threatened to shoot him. The gun discharged, and five separate witnesses heard the shot, Nerheim said. One of those witnesses called police.
Officers arrived within two minutes and observed Howell fleeing the scene with a gun in his right hand, Nerheim said. Hill chased Howell across several yards while other officers began appearing on the scene.
In the front yard of a home on the 2300 block of Galilee, Nerheim said, Hill saw Howell lean forward and turn slightly to the right with the gun in his hand. He said Howell refused repeated commands to drop the weapon during the pursuit.
"Fearing for his life, as well as the life of the officer that was in Howell's direction of travel, Officer Hill reacted by firing two shots in rapid succession at Howell," Nerheim said.
Nerheim said a forensic study of the angles involved in the shooting corroborated Hill's account. The loaded handgun Howell was carrying was within a foot of his body, and a forensic examination found his thumb print and DNA on the weapon, he said.
The Illinois State Police Crime Lab confirmed late Thursday afternoon gunshot residue was recovered on Howell's hands, said George Filenko, commander of the major crimes task force. He said he received verbal confirmation from the state police crime lab but will receive a written report in the next two to three days.
Nerheim's office Thursday also released on his office's website videos showing the shooting from several angles and at different speeds, along with recordings of emergency radio calls, police reports and documents, diagrams showing where Howell was shot and from what angle, and other evidence.
Nerheim said he met with members of Howell's family to let them know that charges would not be brought against the officer.
"My deepest condolences to the family of Justus Howell," Nerheim said after the announcement Thursday. "This decision does not in any way take away from the fact that they are suffering a tremendous loss."
Zion Police Chief Steve Dumyahn said Hill remains on administrative leave from the department but he expects the officer to "return to full active duty" in the coming months.