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Finding justice for Joseph Justin

The family of Joseph Justin schedules their first press conference 13 years after his police murder

Cover Photo: Joseph Justin and his first daughter Ariah Justin, circa 2001. Courtesy of the Justin family.

Reporting: Eyasu Shumie

Photos: Nissa Tzun

Las Vegas, NV - Ariah Justin was just six years old when her father, Joseph Justin, was shot and killed by two LVMPD officers in 2007. On the 13th Angelversary of Justin’s death, Saturday, August 22nd, Ariah and her family will be speaking out in their first press conference on Justin’s behalf at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada office. At the event, they will make it clear what accountability should mean for the officers who killed their father and demand the state to act.

Joseph Justin and his first daughter Ariah Justin. Joseph had two daughters but died before his youngest daughter was born. Photo courtesy of the Justin family.

Ariah is part of the organization Families United 4 Justice LV (FU4JLV), a local group of families who have been impacted by police violence, and members of that group will also be speaking at the event. Ariah initially became aware of this group after being reached out to by Forced Trajectory Project. After speaking at a panel on police violence hosted at the Mob Museum by the UNLV School of Law, Forced Trajectory Project co-founder Nissa Tzun was shocked to discover that the officer also on the panel was involved in her own officer-involved shooting. That officer was Captain Nichole Splinter and the man that she had killed was Joseph Justin. After discovering this, Forced Trajectory Project identified Justin’s family and reached out. Since joining FU4JLV, Ariah has been active in fighting for police reform and oversight to combat police violence.

Ariah speaks for the second time ever in public at the Families Are The Frontline event in downtown Las Vegas where families impacted by police homicide traveled from all over the country to speak out about their cases after the killing of George Floyd which brought police violence back to the national spotlight. To her right are Quentin Heyward, brother of Nicholas Heyward, Jr., 13, killed by NYPD in 1994, and Marissa Barrera, sister of Michael Barrera, killed by Woodland police in 2017, June 6, 2020, Las Vegas, NV.

There is a wide gap between the life trajectories of the officers involved in killing Joseph Justin and those of Ariah and her family. Ariah lost her father at just six years old, her baby sister never got an opportunity to meet their father, and their mother soon fell into drug addiction and legal trouble. Ariah and her sister were forced to grow up without both of their parents and, if not for their resilience, would have been left with nothing due to a hostile police force and an unjust criminal justice system. However, the officers responsible for exerting the force of the criminal justice system on their family have faced entirely different consequences. Timothy Nicothodes is the other officer involved in the shooting, and he is currently enjoying his medical retirement fully paid for by taxpayers. Nichole Splinter has since been promoted to bureau commander of the department’s Office of Internal Oversight and Constitutional Policing. What this means is that Splinter runs the office that would have investigated her and Nicothodes had they killed Joseph Justin today.

Keylee Justin, the second daughter of Joseph Justin, cries while her big sister, Ariah speaks about their struggle of having lost their father. Keylee was in her mother's womb when Joseph Justin was killed by LVMPD officers Nichole Splinter and Timothy Nicothodes. Keylee is comforted by Jacqueline Lawrence, mother of Keith Childress, Jr., who was killed by LVMPD in 2015. June 6, 2020, Las Vegas, NV.

While Splinter was able to find success in the department despite her involvement in the killing of Joseph Justin, Nicothodes has had more difficulties since then. Of course, none of these difficulties are consequences of Joseph Justin’s death, rather they give insight into Nicothodes’s character that may have contributed to Justin’s demise. In 2010, Nicothodes suffered serious injuries after rear ending another car at dangerous speeds in Montana. According to the Billings Gazette, Nicothodes was heavily intoxicated when he caused this crash. The mother of one of the young adults injured in the crash made a statement to press in Montana that rings true for Joseph Justin’s family when she said, "I hope that I have not spent more hours dealing with the aftermath of this accident than Mr. Nicothodes will spend being held accountable for his actions." Unfortunately for her, Nicothodes is an expert at avoiding accountability and despite prosecutors in the case advocating for five years in prison, the Billings Gazette reports that Nicothodes got off with a $500 fine for a misdemeanor DUI and a six-month suspended sentence. The same year of his sentencing Nicothodes was rewarded by the LVMPD with his medical retirement. Nicothodes was arrested again in 2015 for domestic assault in Colorado.

Ariah Justin is featured in this PSA where she shares her father's story and states her family's demands. Filmed on August 18, 2020.

Without even mentioning the circumstances surrounding Justin’s death, the demand of Ariah and her family to terminate the medical retirement of Timothy Nicothodes is already salient. When considering how Justin’s shooting was handled by officers Nicothodes and Splinter it becomes even more clear why Justin’s family still has questions about the shooting. On the 22nd of August in 2007, officers identified Justin as a potential burglary suspect. Within the first 45 seconds of their encounter, Justin was shot by both Splinter and Nicothodes. Despite witnesses stating that they never saw Justin with a firearm in his hand, the officers claimed that he pointed the gun first at himself and then at the officers before they shot him. After firing one taser shot that landed in Justin’s shoe, the officers abandoned other deescalation tactics opting to shoot. Justin died from wounds inflicted by the officers on his leg and back and both officers were deemed justified in their actions leaving Justin’s family behind to deal with the consequences.

Ariah Justin speaks about her father at the press conference for Charleena Lyles, who was killed by Seattle police on June 18, 2017, after calling 911 for help. Families around her include Rhanda Dormeus, the mother of Korryn Gaines, killed by Baltimore County Police in 2016, Kimberly Handy Jones, the mother of Cordale Handy, killed by St. Paul police in 2017, the family of Matthew Felix, killed by Nassau County police on February 25, 2020, Pamela Brooks, the mother of Amir Brooks, killed by Prince George's County police in 2014, the family of Charleena Lyles, and several others.  Seattle, WA, June 18, 2020.

The termination of officer Nicothodes’s medical retirement is just one of the demands from Justin’s family. Another demand is the immediate termination of Captain Nichole Splinter. According to Ariah, prior to being familiar with the faces of the officers who killed their father, each day her and her sister viewed a police car they questioned whether the officer in that vehicle was the same officer that killed their father and irrevocably changed their lives. They were forced to relive the trauma of their father’s death on a daily basis. Given Splinter’s involvement in Justin’s death, there also remains a massive conflict of interest for her to be leading the organization within the department devoted to internal oversight. What kind of message does it send to officers who are being investigated for excessive force when the person leading that department may have used excessive force herself? Ariah and her family are demanding Splinter’s termination not only to hold her accountable for the police violence she has contributed to, but also to ensure that no more officers are protected from accountability for the violence they will cause going forward.

Ariah Justin, daughter of Joseph Justin stands beside Marcia Wells (left), the niece of Byron Williams who was also killed by LVMPD last September, at the press conference for Jorge Gomez, killed by LVMPD on June 1, 2020 who was open carrying while protesting the police murder of George Floyd. July 22, 2020, Las Vegas, NV.

Ariah’s family has one more demand from the LVMPD that is shared by the tens of families involved in Families United 4 Justice LV: the return of Joseph Justin’s belongings. In the thirteen years since Justin’s death, the family has not been able to retrieve any of his belongings besides his ID and have consequently found it difficult to get closure from their loss. While it seems especially callous to not return the belongings of a dead man to allow his family to grieve and heal, this same experience has been shared by many families who have survived police violence in Las Vegas. Such two mothers, Alma Chavez and Jacqueline Lawrence, who have lost sons to police violence in the valley can attest to the difficulty in achieving such a simple request. It is indicative of a departmental disregard for the families left behind and a failure by the department in establishing any level of trust or goodwill in the community.

Although thirteen years have passed since Justin’s death, Ariah and her family feel that now more than ever is the right time for their family to speak out. As millions across the country protest for George Floyd and many more are realizing the full extent of police violence, Ariah has felt emboldened in her calls for justice for her father. Police brutality has been a deep-rooted issue in Las Vegas for decades before George Floyd’s death, but the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has provided a nationwide focus on this problem that Ariah has been acutely aware of. When asked why this moment felt like the right time for her family to speak out, she said, “It’s kind of hard not to talk about it when everyone’s listening because before no one wanted to listen.” Now, people are not only listening but fighting for her family and families like theirs to get answers to pleas that have long been ignored by the police in Las Vegas and across the country.

Sign the petition supporting the Joseph Justin family demands.

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