SALT LAKE CITY —Siale Maveni Angilau, also known as "C-Down," was in federal court April 14, 2014, listening to the witness testify about the inner workings of the Tongan Crips gang.
Angilau, the defendant in this courtroom, was the last of 16 gang members to stand trial in an ongoing racketeering case after a string of robberies and assaults that law enforcement officers said lasted for years.
He didn't like what he was hearing from the witness stand.
"He was telling about the secrets and the activities of the TCG gang life. His testimony was going on and on for several minutes. Then, all of a sudden, that's when he was attacked," a juror, an eyewitness to the attack, told Deseret News reporters Dennis Romboy and Pat Reavy. "I saw the defendant charge over and try to jump over the desk to reach the witness."
Angilau appeared to have something in his hand as he lunged toward the witness. That's when a federal marshal, who was standing between the jury box and the witness stand, drew her weapon, firing into Angilau's chest. He died soon after the shooting.
There is video of the altercation, but law enforcement has refused to release it. But that will change Monday.
Shootings in a courthouse are rare, and bring with them plenty of questions. Among them in this case:
The new 410,000-square-foot courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City was in its first week of use when the shooting occurred. Was security adequate? Were marshals in the proper position? The witness was successfully protected. So can others who take a witness stand also feel safe? And what of the marshal? Authorities still refuse to identify her, saying it served no purpose after ruling the shooting justified.
Video of the altercation will shed light on what occurred and either build public confidence that all was done well, or raise other questions that could lead to calls for change. Some accuse the media of seeking such video because it's dramatic and gets ratings. It actually allows the media to be a watchdog representing the public and allowing viewers to weigh in if security is adequate, if law enforcement and the public not only acted correctly, but are themselves adequately protected.
One need only look to the video of nurse Alex Wubbels who won a $500,000 settlement after her confrontation with Salt Lake police detective Jeff Payne, who lost his job over the incident, as an example of how public scrutiny can change policy and protect the public interest.
Here's how the planned Monday release came to be, as outlined by my colleague McKenzie Romero, a Deseret News reporter and also the president of the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
- Siale Angilau, 25, was shot four times in the middle of his jury trial after grabbing a pen and lunging over a table where he was seated with his attorneys, charging at the witness stand. Before he could reach the witness, a U.S. marshal identified in court documents as "Jane Doe" fired four shots, striking Angilau in the chest. He was rushed from the courtroom by ambulance and died at a hospital.
- Though the Utah State Court has adopted open and transparent policies allowing media to bring still and video cameras into courtrooms, the U.S. District Court in the state has not. No media cameras were present at the time of the shooting, but the new courthouse was equipped with security cameras, which captured the incident. However, the federal government insisted those recordings are not public record.
- In July 2014, the marshal was cleared following an investigation by the FBI. The marshal was never identified "as it serves no legitimate public interest," the FBI said in statement announcing the conclusion of the inquiry.
- In June 2015, the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave its Black Hole Award to the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service for their lack of transparency surrounding the shooting, including withholding the video.
- In July 2016, the Utah Headliners and a coalition of Utah media, including the Deseret News, KSL, The Salt Lake Tribune, Fox 13 and the Associated Press, filed new requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the video with the assistance of attorneys from Parr Brown Gee & Loveless. The media took no position on whether the shooting was justified but claimed the video is a public record that documented a newsworthy event in a public courtroom.
- In September 2016, Angilau's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming the shooting was "particularly unreasonable, reckless and constitutionally excessive." The family had been allowed to view the video, but not to release it. The video blurs the faces of federal marshals in the room, including the one who shot Angilau.
- In December 2016, the Utah Headliners and the media outlets named in the FOIA request filed a motion in court saying that if video of the shooting is admitted as evidence in the wrongful death lawsuit, it should be released to the public.
- In August 2017, an audio recording of the shooting that had been admitted as evidence in the wrongful death lawsuit was made public, giving the first documented account of the courtroom shooting. The audio includes the sounds of someone bumping one of the courtroom microphones as a man calls out, "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" and "Hey!" After about four seconds of building commotion, four gunshots ring out, followed by shouts from several male voices ordering, "Get down on the ground," "Nobody move" and "Drop the pen out of your hand." Weeping can be heard in the background as the jury is hurried out of the courtroom and a 911 call is made to "the new U.S. federal courthouse."
- In December 2017, Magistrate Judge Paul Cleary found that the video should be released to the public. Attorneys for the federal government objected.
- Friday, U.S. District Judge John Dowdell upheld Cleary's decision, ordering the video be released. In addition, Clearly issued a summary judgement dismissing the family's wrongful death lawsuit, finding that the marshal's actions were not unreasonable.
Showing the video will take care and judgement, as video of any violent event ethically requires. I applaud the judges for recognizing that public scrutiny and transparency builds trust in public institutions, and that's particularly important when it comes to our judiciary.