By Jason Clayworth, Des Moines Register, Sept. 12, 2018
“I pulled my gun and shot it and I hit her,” a frantic Officer Jesse Hill told Officer Tim Merryman, according to Hill’s body camera video. “Oh, my God, no! Oh, f—, Tim! S—, Tim! I’m f——- going to prison, Tim!”
The shooting occurred soon after Hill responded to a report of a domestic dispute during which he said the family’s dog attacked him.
The video and records were among hundreds of pages of documents released Wednesday after a judge ordered them public.
Hill slipped on ice when he fired the weapon and shot Autumn Steele, who was standing next to her son.
Hill was never disciplined in the shooting, partly because he reported that he was being attacked by the family dog. That account has been challenged by Steele’s family, who say records and video do not support Hill’s claim.
Authorities initially released abbreviated footage of the shooting from Hill’s body camera.
But for more than three years, and despite the request of Steele’s family, the city of Burlington and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation have refused to publicly release other records in the case, including the entire police video of the incident.
The Burlington case is seen by some open-records experts as a litmus test concerning police powers and open records, specifically whether Iowa law enforcement may suppress from the public unflattering footage captured by police dashboard or officer body cameras.
Autumn Steele’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court, which they settled this year for $2 million.
Judge James Gritzner of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa last month ordered that many of the contested records in the case be released, including video and records that had been withheld.
Gritzner said the balance between the right of access and the benefits of maintaining confidentiality tip in favor of unsealing the records.
None of the reports filed by Burlington police or the DCI mention Hill’s frantic comment caught on video that he was “going to prison.”
The family argued in court documents that were unsealed Wednesday that Hill’s comment is significant because it illustrates a knowledge about the serious legal consequence for an officer who causes a death attributable to “reckless behavior.”
Such behavior can lead to involuntary manslaughter charges, the family argued in court. Hill has not been criminally charged.
The family additionally argued that placing blame on the dog was a hollow argument law enforcement attempted to use to sidetrack accountability.
Hill had not stated that the dog had bit him in the body camera footage and — even in his report written days after the shooting — only reported “the sensation of being bit,” court documents released Wednesday show.
The three witnesses to the shooting each said the dog was not aggressive, statements that were not noted in police reports. The bite mark law enforcement said Hill sustained did not puncture skin, according to records and a photo taken at a hospital following the incident.
O’Brien said he believes that law enforcement agencies worked to cover up how the shooting occurred: “I’ve never seen anything this bad.”
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council filed a motion that ultimately led to the release of records Wednesday. The nonprofit council spent an estimated $12,000 in legal bills, director Randy Evans said Wednesday.
Evans said he believes Iowa lawmakers need to clarify language in laws so there are no loopholes that prevent the public from reviewing police conduct following the completion of an investigation.
“Every time public information scores a victory, you’re grateful, but I don’t think this is any type of long-term solution,” Evans said.
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Here is the ruling by U.S. District Judge James Gritzner in which he unsealed court records and evidence filed in the wrongful-death lawsuit by Autumn Steele’s family against the City of Burlington. Steele–Order on motion to unseal