A Cook County judge Friday found veteran Chicago Police Officer Lowell Houser guilty of second-degree murder in the 2017 off-duty shooting of 37-year-old Jose Nieves.
In making his ruling — nearly two months after the three-day bench trial — Judge William Gamboney said evidence supported Houser’s claim that he was acting in self-defense when he shot Nieves, but that the 60-year-old officer’s decision to open fire on the unarmed man was unreasonable.
“The court does not find that Houser was justified in the use of deadly force,” Gamboney said, reading from his written order, noting that neighbors had seen the two men quarreling, and that Nieves appeared to have pulled off his jacket despite the chilly January temperature.
“Even though Nieves may have been aggressive, the evidence suggests he was ready for a fist fight. But Houser brought a gun.”
Wearing a blue suit over a teal plaid shirt, Houser slouched in a chair beside his attorneys as Gamboney spoke. Houser showed no reaction, and only sat up when Gamboney announced that his bond would be revoked. Houser had been on house arrest since he was charged with first-degree murder in 2017.
Nieves’ sister, Angelica Nieves, told reporters she was satisfied with the conviction and glad to see Houser taken into custody.
“It’s not a first-degree conviction…He’s still convicted,” Angelica Nieves said. “All that matters to me that is that he’s convicted, in some form or manner. His name is put as a murder, because he was a murderer. He is a murder.”
Houser faces probation to up to 20 years in prison — far less than he might have faced if convicted of first-degree murder. The nearly three years Houser spent on house arrest would likely be deducted from any prison time he receives since defendants convicted of second-degree murder can shave as much as half the time off their sentences.
Houser was disappointed by Gamboney’s finding, but relieved that the judge believed that Houser thought he was in danger when he shot Nieves, said defense attorney Thomas Needham. Houser also was glad he would not be facing the 45-year minimum sentence for a first-degree murder conviction.
“This is not something that he wanted to happen that morning,” Needham said. “If he could do it over again, he would have just gone in a different direction.”
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx issued a statement Friday, saying she was pleased with the ruling in a case her office charged just weeks after she became top prosecutor, following a campaign in which she had criticized incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s handling of the deadly Laquan McDonald shooting by former CPD officer Jason Van Dyke.
“The deliberate actions of Officer Houser demanded justice and accountability. While this incident occurred within weeks of this administration taking office, after a careful review, we took swift action to ensure that the appropriate charges were filed for this crime,” Foxx said.
Van Dyke, who was found guilty of second-degree murder by a jury for the on-duty shooting of 17-year-old McDonald, is currently serving a seven year prison sentence.
There was no dispute at Houser’s October trial that he shot Jose Nieves outside a Northwest Side apartment building where both Nieves and a female friend of Houser’s lived. It was Houser, then on medical leave, who called 911 and reported that he was an officer and “a gentleman tried to attack me. I had to shoot him.”
When police arrived, Houser turned over his .40 caliber pistol, and told officers that Nieves shouted threats at him and appeared to be reaching for a gun when Houser opened fire. Houser’s pistol was the only weapon found at the scene.
Nieves longtime girlfriend, Michelle Malkowski, testified that Houser pulled up next to her in his car as she and Nieves carried boxes up to the apartment. The veteran officer asked Malkowski why she was helping Nieves, adding that Nieves was “no good to women.”
Nieves took issue with the remark, touching off an argument that continued as Malkowski went to Nieves’ apartment. Moments later, Malkowski heard shots and found Nieves bleeding on the street. A neighbor said he heard the men shouting and looked out his window, then looked away until he heard shots. When he looked out again, he saw Nieves clutching his chest and Houser pointing a gun at him.
Houser did not testify at his trial — an unusual move for a defense built on a claim of self-defense.
Nieves’ family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Houser and the city, alleging that CPD failed to take action after Nieves reported previous misconduct by Houser. Prosecutors have said that Houser pulled his gun on Nieves during an argument a few weeks before the shooting. That litigation has been on hold while Houser’s criminal case was pending.