A Cook County judge Monday sentenced former veteran Chicago Police Officer Lowell Houser to 10 years in prison for the murder of Jose Nieves in a 2017 off-duty shooting.
Houser sat slumped in a chair between his lawyers, shackled at the ankles and wearing a black-and-white striped jail jumpsuit, as Judge William Gamboney handed down the sentence.
Gamboney, who found 60-year-old Houser guilty of second-degree murder in December, said the case had been a difficult one for him but acknowledged Houser’s role in escalating an argument with Nieves into a fatal shooting.
Houser shot Nieves three times outside a Northwest Side apartment building where both Nieves and a female friend of Houser’s lived. Houser pulled his car up next to Nieves’ girlfriend as she helped Nieves carry boxes to his apartment and told her that Nieves was “terrible to women.” Nieves took exception to the remark, and an argument escalated to gunshots. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, and Houser argued he acted in self defense.
“Mr. Houser had a multitude of alternatives during his interaction with Mr. Nieves,” Gamboney said. “We can sit here and debate what he could have done ... but Mr. Houser chose probably the most extreme [option] in that list of circumstances, and as a result, we have a 37-year-old man ... Jose Nieves, who is dead.”
The charges carried a possible sentence of probation or a maximum term of 20 years. Houser will get credit for three years he spent on house arrest while awaiting trial, and his sentence can be reduced by as much as half with good behavior, meaning he likely will spend about two years behind bars.
Houser only glanced up as supporters, including his son and friends who served with him on the police force and in the military, walked past him on their way to the witness stand Monday.
Houser spoke briefly, and stopped short of apologizing for Nieves’ death.
“I sincerely send my condolences to the Nieves family,” he said. “Many times I went over in my mind if there was something I could have done to prevent this, but, unfortunately, I can only look at this in hindsight.”
Houser called police after the shooting, and told a dispatcher “a gentleman tried to attack me. I had to shoot him.” When officers arrived, he turned over his gun and spoke with detectives, admitting to shooting the younger man, but stating that Nieves appeared to be reaching for his waistband. Nieves, who was hit in the wrist and back, was unarmed. Houser did not testify at his trial, a rarity for a case where the person claims he or she was acting in self-defense.
Houser, who resigned from CPD after 28 years on the force following his arrest, was on medical leave from the department at the time of the shooting and had been planning to retire in a few months after undergoing treatment for cancer, his lawyer, William Fahy said. During his nearly three decades as a police officer, Houser had never shot anyone in the line of duty.
“He made that split second decision out of fear,” Fahy said. “Never in a million years would he have expected his career to have ended this way.”
The charges against Houser came just weeks after Kim Foxx took office as state’s attorney, having made a campaign issue out of incumbent Anita Alvarez’s handling of criminal cases against police officers — a hot button topic in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by then CPD officer Jason Van Dyke.
Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times as the teen walked away from police officers at a busy South Side intersection, was found guilty of second-degree murder by a jury in 2018 and sentenced to seven years in prison.
While Houser’s sentence is longer, Van Dyke will spend more time behind bars— around three years — because he did not accumulate credit for the three years he was free on bond ahead of his trial.
Nieves’ sister and mother Monday wore teal T-shirts with his face printed on them.
“[Houser], you didn’t use your judgment that day. I think you only have remorse because you got locked up,” said Nieves’ sister, Angelica Nieves, who said she and her family wanted a longer sentence for Houser.
“Right now, all I care about right now is that he’s labeled as a murderer.”