In the final seconds of his life, Siale Angilau casually stood up, grabbed a pen from his attorney, then took off in a sprint toward the witness testifying against him.
What happened next has been the subject of intense scrutiny and legal wrangling over the past four years — but the matter has finally been put to rest, at least in the eyes of the law.
Angilau, 25, was a member of the Tongan Crips, a gang made up of descendants of the Polynesian island nation of Tonga. On the streets he was known as “C-Down,” according to court documents, and like other Tongan Crips, he had to put in “work,” committing crimes to make money for the gang or protect its turf. He specialized in robbing 7-Eleven stores around Salt Lake City.
But by 2008, he was in police custody and facing a long stint in federal prison. He had been identified in several convenience-store robberies and had shot a clerk and fired a gun at two federal marshals trying to apprehend him.
His family members say the years leading up to that 2014 lunge in the courtroom had been filled with frustration at the hands of the government.
Angilau had pleaded guilty to several state charges on the promise from prosecutors that federal charges would not be brought against him, his family’s wrongful-death lawsuit claims. But investigators found evidence of additional crimes, and the government “changed their mind,” the lawsuit says.
Angilau was also accused of being part of a larger criminal enterprise and could have been held liable for slayings and robberies committed by other Tongan Crips.
That’s why one day in April 2014, Angilau found himself sitting at a defendant’s table in federal court, listening to a man accuse him of crimes.
He was the last Tongan Crip member to stand trial at the courthouse in Utah. One by one, others were sent away to prison, some for as long as 30 years.
The witness in Angilau’s case was an inmate identified only by his initials, V.T.
He was shackled and wearing prison clothes when Angilau ran toward him, court documents say.
As Angilau charged toward him with the pen, V.T. slid out of the witness box. Another man in the court could be heard yelling: “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”
Angilau leaped and swung the pen at the witness but missed.
A U.S. marshal in the room drew her pistol and fired four shots at close range, killing Angilau.
After the shooting, prosecutors stood in shock. Angilau’s attorney crawled beneath a desk. Another marshal, his hand on his holstered gun, told courtroom observers — including the dying defendant’s family — to remain still.
For years afterward, Angilau’s family has said the marshal who killed him went too far.
In the wrongful-death lawsuit, the family said the courthouse had multiple layers of security, with several armed U.S. marshals and bailiffs in the courtroom capable of subduing their son.
Angilau had a weapon, they said, but it was only a pen. And the final three shots were fired into Angilau’s back, after he was on the floor.
His family also accused the government of erecting a veil of secrecy around their son’s death, since authorities never released the identity of the marshal who fired the fatal shots. The FBI has said doing so could subject her to retribution.
And although investigators quickly cleared the marshal of wrongdoing, it was more than a year before they allowed the family to see the video of the shooting.
When they did, it was of poor quality and heavily redacted, and relatives were not allowed to show it to anyone else, according to the family.
Members of the media, including the Associated Press, joined the fight to see the video, arguing that what happens in open court is a matter of public record and saying the shooting raised questions about the use of fatal force by a federal law enforcement agent.
On Friday, nearly four years after Angilau was killed, a federal judge relented and ordered the video to be released. At the same time, the judge dismissed the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Angilau’s family — and said the footage captured by cameras in the courtroom justified his decision to do so.
“Having carefully reviewed the video of Mr. Angilau’s swift flight from counsel table, his vault over the witness stand with pen in hand, and his attempt to violently attack the shackled witness, the court has little difficulty determining that [Jane] Doe’s use of force to immediately stop Angilau’s attack was objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances,” U.S. District Judge John Dowdell said.
A U.S. Marshals Service spokeswoman, Lynzey Donahue, said the video “demonstrates how quickly violence can erupt, in any situation.”
Angilau’s relatives had a different interpretation: Their attorney, Bob Sykes, told the AP the video shows the marshal “panicked.”
“There was no need to use deadly force,” Sykes said. “They weren’t entitled to use the death penalty on him for an assault.”