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Jury finds for Zion police officer who shot boy, 17, twice in back, killing him

Eric Hill

Zion police officer Eric Hill leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse last week after testifying in the civil case in the shooting death of Justus Howell. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A family left a federal courtroom in tears Thursday after the reading of a jury verdict that a lawyer said “exonerated” a Zion police officer in the fatal shooting of a 17- year-old boy.

Officer Eric Hill shot Justus Howell twice in the back during a foot chase in April 2015. Hill said the boy turned during the pursuit and pointed a gun at him. Howell’s family said Howell did not have the gun in his hand at the time, alleging Hill lied and doctored the scene.

On Thursday, after a week-long civil trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, a jury sided with Hill and the city of Zion on claims of excessive force and wrongful death.

Howell’s family sat quietly in the courtroom after hearing the verdict, clearly disappointed.

When the late teenager’s mother, LaToya Howell, finally left the courtroom she told a reporter, “no justice, no peace.” Later, she said, “my son did not get justice in this life.”

“My fight will never stop,” she said, adding that a fund-raiser for a scholarship in her son’s name will be held March 24.

Andrew Stroth, one of the family’s lawyers, said Howell’s relatives were “devastated” by the verdict. He said that surveillance video of the shooting “speaks for itself.”

But lawyers for both sides claimed during the trial the video backed up their version of events. It shows, from a distance, Howell running away from Hill before finally crumpling to the ground.

On the witness stand, Hill acknowledged the video was recorded from “too far away to distinguish a gun.”

There was no dispute that Howell had a gun with him during the chase. It was later found near the boy’s body. The Howell family’s lawyers said Hill took it out of the boy’s pocket after the shooting.

Hill’s lawyer, Thomas DiCianni, said after the verdict he was “happy that Officer Hill has been exonerated.”

“There are no winners in this case,” DiCianni said.

The verdict comes nearly three years after 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.

That announcement sparked protests.

Howell was shot after he got into a fight while trying to buy a gun at roughly 2 p.m. April 4, 2015. Hill was called to the residential neighborhood after someone reported gunfire. Hill pulled into an alley between the 2300 blocks of Gilead and Galilee. That’s when he crossed paths with Howell, who began to run.

Hill and other officers pursued Howell. DiCianni said Hill found himself in “a bad situation” because he believed Howell was armed, desperate to get away and likely to cross paths with another officer.

DiCianni said Hill told Howell to “stop” and “drop the gun.”