A grainy surveillance video captured the fatal shooting by a Zion police officer of 17-year-old Justus Howell nearly three years ago.
Now it is central to a civil trial at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in which Howell’s family insists Officer Eric Hill used unreasonable force when he pulled the trigger.
Lawyers for each side insisted on Tuesday that the video backs them up. And they encouraged jurors to look closely at it during deliberations. It shows, from a distance, Howell running away from Hill before crumpling to the ground.
Megan Cunniff Church, a lawyer for Howell’s family, said it also “shows a kid running away from the police.” But Hill’s lawyer, Thomas DiCianni, said it may also depict the teenager turning his body toward the officer, as authorities have long insisted.
There is no dispute over whether Howell had a gun with him when he was shot twice in the back on April 4, 2015. But while Hill says the boy pointed the gun toward him during a chase, lawyers for Howell’s family say Hill lied and doctored the scene.
Church pointed Tuesday to the “objective evidence” in the case that not only includes the video but also Howell’s wounds. She said his back wounds suggest he was bent over and nearly parallel to the ground when he was shot.
Key in the video, she said, is the lack of a reflection from the silver gun Howell had with him. Howell was shot on a sunny afternoon. Church noted the reflection from a police badge on the video — and the lack of one from Howell’s hand. She said that’s because Howell wasn’t holding the gun.
“Zoom in, zoom out,” Church said. “Look for a reflection in Justus’ hand. You won’t see it.”
DiCianni later took jurors frame-by-frame through the video. He pointed to a moment in which Howell’s shoulders appear to turn parallel to a house on his left, indicating a turn.
Earlier, on the witness stand, Hill acknowledged the video was recorded from “too far away to distinguish a gun.” But DiCianni told jurors Tuesday the key was that Hill perceived a threat in that moment.
The incident began when Howell got into a fight while trying to buy a gun. Hill was called to the neighborhood after someone reported gunfire. The officer pulled into an alley and crossed paths with Howell, who ran away.
Hill and other officers ran after Howell. Hill’s lawyer has said Hill opened fire after realizing Howell was armed, desperate to get away and likely to come upon another officer.
Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim said in May 2015 that Hill was justified in the shooting. In a decision that sparked protests, Nerheim said frame-by-frame video evidence showed Howell turned slightly and had a gun in his hand during the chase.