Excessive Force? Angilau Family Fighting for Access to Court Footage
On April 21, 2014, 25-year-old defendant Siale Angilau was fatally shot by a U.S. Marshal after lunging at a witness during his trial at U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. Months later, on September 8, court clerk D. Mark Jones confirmed the existence of video footage of the incident. Relatives and defense attorney Robert Sykes want to review that footage, fearing Angilau may have been the victim of excessive force — but Chief Judge Ted Stewart won’t permit the tapes to be released.
Defendant Siale Angilau Fatally Shot After Lunging at Witness, Judge Declares Mistrial
When Siale Angilau appeared in federal court on April 21, he was facing a long list of felony charges. Just one of 17 defendants snared in an indictment which encompassed 29 counts of robbery, weapons charges, conspiracy, and assault, Angilau’s alleged crimes were connected to his membership in the Tongan Crips, where he went by the nickname “C-Down.” An offshoot of their more famous originators in Los Angeles, the Tongan Crips have been described as “intimidating,” “extremely violent,” and “out of control” by Utah police officers.
The incident occurred on the first day of the trial. Witness Vaiola Mataele Tenifa was in the middle of giving testimony about gang initiation when Angilau lunged toward him, prompting the U.S. Marshal on security duty to open fire. Angilau collapsed to the floor, and was pronounced dead at the hospital several hours later.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell was quick to declare a mistrial, noting a “visibly shaken and upset” jury.
With Angilau deceased and the case against him dismissed, it seemed as though his story was finished. But earlier this month, court clerk D. Mark Jones’ public confirmation of a video recording spurred renewed interest in Angilau’s story — particularly from his family members and legal representatives.
“The Video Doesn’t Lie. We Want to Know What Happened.”
For grieving relatives and defense attorney Robert Sykes, the footage holds the answer to a pressing question: was the shooting necessary?
Or was it excessive force?
“The video doesn’t lie,” says Sykes. “We want to know what happened.”
“The video is the property of the United States District Court. It is not the property of the FBI,” explains Utah FBI agent and spokesperson Todd Palmer. “So whatever circumstances surrounding the release would have to go through the district court.”
That’s unfortunate for Sykes and the Angilau family, because Chief Judge Ted Stewart is refusing to release the tape to the public.
“To have the identity of the court staff, the jury, the security there — the probative value of having the tape for the public is so small compared to the security risk,” explains court clerk Jones.
“I don’t want to sue somebody for excessive force if it wasn’t,” Sykes insists. “I want to see that video.”
“It doesn’t make any sense in our view,” says Jones.
“Records of proceedings in a public courtroom should always be open and available to the public,” says Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C., “but it sounds like it will be hard to convince this judge of that.”
(Contrary to Leslie’s assessment, Jones has stated that keeping court records confidential is routine policy.)
At least there’s one factor which could prove helpful in uncovering the truth: plenty of eye-witnesses saw the incident take place. What did they observe? Perhaps their recollections can shed some light on the circumstances of Angilau’s death.
“There were people yelling at him, telling him to stop,” remembers Sara Josephson, who was present in court, “and he just didn’t stop. He kept going forward with his furiousness.”
“I think it was warranted,” says Perry Caldwell, another witness, “because I don’t see how you could break up that fight that was happening.”
In a statement, the FBI described Angilau’s behavior in court as “aggressive” and “threatening.”
The U.S. Marshal’s name was not publicly disclosed by the FBI, which stated that such a release of information would “serve no legitimate public interest.” In July, the Department of Justice declined to file any criminal charges against him.
“They were on each other,” Caldwell remembers. “I do believe [the U.S. Marshal] did the right thing.”
But Sykes says there are inconsistencies between eye-witness recollections — a well-documented phenomenon estimated to account for over 75% of wrongful convictions. For Sykes, it’s not so much a matter of whether the U.S. Marshal fired — it’s whether he continued firing after Angilau was already wounded.
“He was falling as he was still shooting him,” says Caldwell. “When he was on the ground, I think he got shot like four times on the ground.”
If you were criminally charged in Salt Lake City or elsewhere in Utah, an experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer can protect your legal rights and guide you through the court process. To schedule a free and confidential case evaluation, call attorney Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287, or contact us online today.