Nearly three years after Lake County prosecutors sided with a Zion police officer who fatally shot a fleeing 17-year-old boy, a lawyer for the teen’s family told a federal jury the officer lied about seeing a handgun in the boy’s hand at the time of the shooting.
Carlton Odim, a lawyer for the family of Justus Howell, alleged Officer Eric Hill shot Howell twice in the back on April 4, 2015. He also said Hill doctored the scene of the shooting and lied about it. A surveillance camera captured the shooting.
“Eric Hill didn’t know that a video had captured those events,” Odim said before he insisted, “Justus had nothing in his hands.”
Hill’s lawyer, Thomas DiCianni, insisted, “there is a whole lot more to it” than the video. And he noted Howell did have a gun that day. It was found by his body.
“He had that gun,” DiCianni told the jury.
Odim said Hill took it out of Howell’s pocket after the shooting and tossed it on the ground.
Jurors saw video of the shooting Thursday as a civil trial over Howell’s death kicked off at the Dirksen Federal Building. It shows, from a distance, Howell running away from Hill before finally crumpling to the ground. Jurors will likely see it repeatedly over the course of the roughly weeklong trial, both in real time and in slow motion.
Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim announced in May 2015 that Hill was justified when he fired his gun at Howell. Nerheim said video evidence — viewed frame-by-frame — showed that Howell turned slightly and had a gun in his hand during the chase. Nerheim’s decision sparked protests.
The incident began when Howell got into a fight while trying to buy a gun. It was roughly 2 p.m., and Hill was called to the residential neighborhood after someone reported gunfire. Hill had a student intern in his vehicle when he arrived.
Hill pulled into an alley between the 2300 blocks of Gilead and Galilee. That’s when he crossed paths with Howell, lawyers said. The intern saw nothing in Howell’s hands, Odim said. But DiCianni explained that Hill had been trained to study the way Howell was walking — and he appeared to be armed.
Howell began to run away, lawyers said. Hill told the intern to stay put, hopped out of the vehicle and began the pursuit.
Other officers joined in as Hill chased Howell around the area. Finally, DiCianni said Hill found himself in “a bad situation.” Hill believed Howell was armed, desperate to get away and likely to cross paths with another officer, DiCianni said.
DiCianni said Hill had shouted orders for Howell to “stop” and “drop the gun.”
It is difficult on the surveillance video to see the moment when Howell turned toward Hill, DiCianni acknowledged. But he also told jurors “you will never be able to understand what was going through” Hill’s mind when he made a “split-second decision” to pull the trigger.
Odim said the officer shot Howell twice in the back — once in the upper right shoulder and once in his lower left back.
DiCianni said Hill obeyed his training and followed the rules. He said Howell did not.
“All he had to do was stop,” DiCianni said.