ZION, Ill. (CBS) — We’ve heard the names – George Floyd and Laquan McDonald among them – but in far north suburban Zion, there was also Justus Howell.
The 17-year-old was shot in the back and killed while running away from police there in 2015. The officer who fired the shots was ultimately cleared, but Howell’s mother kept on fighting.
Now, LaToya Howell asking prosecutors to reopen the case – and take another look at the officer’s actions. She spoke Monday to CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov.
“I did not want my son to become a statistic,” LaToya Howell said.
It has been five years since Zion police Officer Eric Hill shot and killed LaToya Howell’s son Justus on April 4, 2015 near 24th Street and Galilee Avenue. A home security camera captured the moment Hill fired the first of two shots.
Ultimately, investigators ruled Officer Hill was justified, and Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim said Hill “only fired when he thought his life and the life of his fellow officers were in danger.”
It’s a narrative that Justus Howell’s mother rejected from day one.
“That’s why I’m continuing to fight, you know? If these people – they’re not held accountable, but they’re allowed to push lies and narratives,” LaToya Howell said.
Howell’s attorney, Jed Stone, now wants Lake County prosecutors to reopen the case.
“For decades, this state’s attorney’s office has been the epicenter of wrongful convictions and police misconduct,” Stone said.
It’s why Stone sent a letter to Nerheim Monday afternoon, demanding he convene a grand jury to review Justus Howell’s death, stating that Zion police “fabricated a story to support Hill’s cowardly act of murder.”
“We have a coroner’s report that labels it as a cause of death, homicide,” Stone said.
Stone said evidence and science support that claim.
At the time, witnesses said Howell and another young man were seen fighting in a Zion yard, and 911 was called. Police later claimed Howell had a gun, but Stone points out Howell was running away from police.
He said Howell’s body was never photographed at the scene, and neither Howell’s fingerprints nor is DNA were found on the gun, photographed later.
“Did they call the Coroner of Lake County and turn the body and the crime scene over to the coroner? No. They packed up that child and staged photographs of the gun, and then whitewashed this crime,” Stone said. “And that’s shameful.”
“My trust is totally tarnished with law enforcement,” said LaToya Howell. “I’m just praying that the justice system, I can still have faith in.”
Witnesses told conflicting stories about a gun in Howell’s hand. Initially, at least two said they never saw a gun, but later, prosecutors said there were at least four who said they did.
Howell’s mom also lost a federal civil rights lawsuit about her son’s death in 2018.
On Monday afternoon, a representative of the Lake County State’s Attorney’s office said the case was reviewed by several independent agencies and even the FBI took a look at it, so if Stone wants to submit some concrete new information, then they’ll take a look at it.
As to why Stone sent the letter now, he said the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and calls for accountability and change prompted him to send it. As Stone put it, “because now is where we are.”