Nerheim unmoved by calls from family to reopen Justus Howell case

  • Demonstrators march to the Zion Police Department to mark the anniversary of the 2015 shooting death of Justus Howell.

    Demonstrators march to the Zion Police Department to mark the anniversary of the 2015 shooting death of Justus Howell. Daily Herald file photo, 2016

 
 
Updated 6/16/2020 9:08 PM

Despite a plea Monday on behalf of Justus Howell's family, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim has not reopened the investigation into the 2015 police shooting death of the 17-year-old from Waukegan.

Howell, who is black, was fatally shot twice in the back by Zion police officer Eric Hill, who is white, in April 2015.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

After an investigation by the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force, Nerheim concluded that Hill was justified in his decision to use deadly force against Howell, in part because Howell was armed with a handgun.

In a statement, Nerheim's office said Tuesday the investigation has already been reviewed by independent agencies as well as the FBI.

The open letter to Nerheim was written by Howell family attorney Jed Stone, who made a number of allegations about the investigation into the teen's death. Stone's letter began with a reference to the police killing of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis, which led to charges against the officers involved, and he demanded that Hill be charged for Howell's death.

"Nothing in this newly submitted letter, presented five years after the incident, addresses any newly discovered evidence," Lake County state's attorney's office spokesman Lee Filas said. "Should the author of the letter actually uncover any new information, he is free to submit it to the state's attorney's office for review."

Howell's family filed a federal lawsuit in 2016, alleging the teen was unarmed and authorities lied to justify the killing. A jury rejected the family's claims in 2018.

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In his letter, Stone said Zion police "fabricated a story to support Hill's cowardly act of murder."

Reached for comment Tuesday, Zion Police Chief Kirk Henderson said he is away on medical leave and would not have a response ready.

According to Nerheim's statements on the investigation from 2015, the Zion Police Department requested that the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force investigate the shooting and Zion police did not participate in any aspect of the investigation.

In his letter, Stone wrote the Lake County Major Crime Task Force has a "sad history of error and deception."

Some of the assertions made by Stone in the open letter contradict the publicly available record of the investigation. Stone asserts that Howell's DNA is "nowhere to be found on the weapon," but according to DNA testing done by the Northeastern Illinois Regional Crime Laboratory at the time, Howell's DNA was found on the gun by the slide and trigger.

According to the task force's investigation, Howell met Tramond Peet, 18, of Lindenhurst for a gun purchase in Zion. In an alley, Peet handed Howell a silver Kimber 9 mm handgun that was stolen from a home in Lake Villa. The two began to struggle, and, at one point, Howell pointed the gun at Peet and threatened to shoot him. The gun discharged, and five witnesses heard the shot.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Officers saw Howell fleeing the scene with a gun in his right hand and Hill chased Howell across several yards, according to the investigation. Hill saw Howell lean forward and turn slightly to the right with the gun in his hand, the investigation said, adding that Howell refused repeated commands to drop the weapon.

Peet pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful use of a weapon and was sentenced to 24 months of probation, 150 hours of community service and 48 days in the Lake County jail.

The official investigation into the police shooting death of Justus Howell is available to view online at lakecountyil.gov//2188/Zion-Officer-Investigation-2015.

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