Officer Eric Hill was the closest thing the 17-year-old had to a friend while under arrest—a juvenile advocate charged with making sure the boy knew his rights. The boy, whom Hill said was quiet and polite, confessed to his involvement in a stolen car investigation and was released that day.
Three weeks later, Hill shot him twice in the back.
Only after cuffing the fatally wounded boy, patting him down, and emptying the contents of his pockets—some ammo, lighters, a cell phone, and an ID—did Hill realize who it was.
The officer’s previous encounter with the teen he later killed is among the new revelations about the case found in a report by the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force. Its conclusion, based on dozens of witness and officer testimonies, lab reports, photos, 911 calls, police radio recordings, and video: Justus Howell had stolen a gun, fired a shot into the ground during a tussle with the seller, and then ran away from the police. Officer Hill was found to be justified in shooting the boy and will face no charges. (Read the entire report here.)
Yet conflicting witness accounts and the few seconds of newly released grainy, enhanced security video that captured Howell’s final moments haven't laid to rest lingering doubts among Howell's family and activists. Did Howell really turn towards the officer? Or did the force of being hit with a bullet in his right shoulder make him turn towards the officer?
And was the 17-year-old really armed when he was gunned down?
“There’s nothing I see on that video that says he has a gun or doesn’t have one,” Lake County coroner Thomas Rudd, who did the official autopsy, told Fusion. “The video to me is actually useless.” Police said they found a gun with Howell’s fingerprints next to his body, about a foot from his head.
Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim, who ordered the investigation, did admit in a press conference that it was difficult to see what was happening, but was steadfast in the conclusion that Howell turned to the officer.
In investigation interviews made public in a document dump, Hill said the morning of April 4 had been quiet, with few people on the street. The Chicago suburb of Zion was known for drugs and fights and gangs. He said this was a place where kids on bikes served as lookouts and whistled or said “po-po” when an officer drove by.
Hill said he first saw Howell 50 feet in front of his squad car holding what appeared to be a concealed weapon in the front of his waistband. Later, in a foot chase, he said Howell ran with both hands on a silver object; when Howell turned a corner, Hill said he confirmed that the boy was holding a gun. So when Howell allegedly turned to his left and towards the officer, Hill fired.
Here’s the diagram the state’s attorney presented. The body on the right shows where the bullets hit (and the trajectory of the shots) according to police. The body on the left shows the angle of the shots if Howell were standing straight.
And written testimony from a few witnesses:
“I saw a glimpse of a gun in his hand.”
“When I saw him run I thought he wasn’t hit. But when he fell, I thought oh my goodness, he has been shot.”
“I did notice a small semi automatic hand gun close to this young man as police were giving him first aid.”
There are no mentions of the gun on the police audio recordings, Hill said, because when he tried to warn the officers in the neighborhood that Howell was armed while he was running, he repeatedly grabbed the microphone cord on his radio and not the microphone itself.
While many witnesses said they saw a silver gun on the ground a foot away from Howell’s head after the shooting, there are pockets of uncertainty in the report.
Three out of six people on the ambulance crew who responded to the scene did not see a firearm near the body. One witness, standing on a hill across the street, said he saw Howell toss the gun and was shot as he lowered himself to the ground. And though there are photos of the gun in the report, none were taken while the firearm was next to Howell’s head, where police said he dropped it.
"He was pulling up his pants, that's what he was doing,” said Zion civil-rights activist Clyde McLemore after watching the video. “He wasn't even running fast. That's why the officer shot him."
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in police behavior, said he couldn’t see any evidence that Howell was turning towards the officer in the video. Yet, like most cases in which video exists, unless the officer is blatantly doing something awful, footage rarely hurts an officer’s story.
“Here, you’ve got a video of low quality and the officer’s narrative is not inconsistent with what you see,” Harris said. “It’s very hard to know what to see. But it isn’t inconsistent.”
Samuel Walker, criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on police accountability, said that while it’s hard to use video to show an officer’s criminal intent, footage of shootings still do have a certain power. “The important thing is that there are many people who refuse to believe that these bad things happen,” he said.
After the press conference, Zion closed government offices early on Friday expecting protests to swell to 2,000 angry citizens. Instead, the march barely registered a blip. Fewer than 50 people joined Howell’s mother Latoya, armed with only a megaphone.
"I have seen that video,” she told reporters outside the courthouse Thursday. “There is nothing that suggests they should execute my son. His back was turned. He was no threat."