Before Xzavier Hill’s mother can question the officers who killed her son, a judge wants to know what she’ll ask
A Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled Monday that Latoya Benton, mother of Xzavier Hill, has two weeks to propose questions to the court that she wants the officers involved in the killing of her son to answer. Only then will the judge decide if the officers must answer the questions, according to Benton.
Justice for Xzavier Hill
Benton has been leading a movement calling for justice for her son’s death at the hands of Virginia State Police officers on Jan. 9.
Hill was 18 years old when Virginia State Police Troopers Benjamin Bone and Seth Layton shot and killed him. He was originally pulled over for speeding and evading police in Goochland County. Police claim Hill was reaching for a weapon when the troopers killed him. That's contested by the family and advocates organizing around the case.
What’s not contested is that the gun in Hill’s car was jammed and unloaded, with the cartridge out of Hill’s reach when he died. That’s according to the multi-jurisdictional grand jury report that the Goochland commonwealth’s attorney released after a grand jury ruled Hill’s death justified in February.
Compelling officers’ testimony
Benton petitioned the Richmond City Circuit Court in June for the right to further question the officers involved in the death of her son.
Benton’s petition is part of a legal action she’s pursuing to have her son’s death declared wrongful by the court. Under Virginia law, when a person’s death is caused by “the wrongful act, neglect, or default of any person or corporation,” the families of the deceased can seek those entities to be held liable for damages.
Under Rule 4:2 of the Virginia Supreme Court, people in the commonwealth have the right to petition courts to require the testimony of another person regarding any matter that might be within the jurisdiction of the court. Because she’s pursuing legal action related to Hill’s death, Benton’s petition calls for soliciting the testimony of the officers responsible for killing her son before their memory fades as well as the testimony of the special agents who investigated her son’s death for VSP.
According to her petition, Benton hopes further testimony will establish the circumstances leading up to the shooting of her son. The grand jury report released by the Goochland Commonwealth Attorney’s office only included six sentences of post-incident statements from Bone and none from Layton.
“In the report, it has one officer’s statement, and that statement isn’t even a whole statement. It’s like a snippet of his statement. So information like that, it’s still needed in my son’s case” Benton said.
She’s also seeking information about the training provided to VSP officers on the proper response to a traffic stop and the use of deadly force. Benton says that’s because her petition is about more than just her son’s case; it’s about increasing transparency and accountability among Virginia law enforcement for everyone.
“The whole point is doing it differently so we can change the system,” Benton said. “It’s more so about changing policy and procedure.”
What the Commonwealth'’s Attorney is saying
The commonwealth’s attorney’s office argued in their response and objection to Benton’s petition that her request is not just to extract testimony under Rule 4:2 but is actually asking for pretrial discovery before her wrongful death case begins.
However, the commonwealth attorney’s petition doesn’t argue that Benton has no case against the commonwealth. In fact, they argued in their petition that Benton already has so much evidence that she doesn’t need the testimony she’s requesting to file her lawsuit.
“It is clear that petitioner has all she needs to bring an action and, therefore, her petition must be denied,” the response states.
VPM did not receive a response to an interview request from the attorney general’s office before publication. Corinne Geller, director of public relations for the Virginia State Police, said in a statement that state police do not comment on pending litigation.
Wrongful deaths at the hands of Virginia police officers
Hill’s case, when it’s filed, will join a litany of wrongful death lawsuits filed in response to the killing of Virginia residents by police lately. In June, the father of Donovan Lynch, another young Black man who was killed by a Virginia Beach police officer in March, also filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of his son.
Also in Virginia Beach, in 2018 the family of India Kager was awarded $800,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit against four Virginia Beach police officers after police killed Kager in 2015.
Again in Virginia Beach, earlier this year a jury found a Virginia Beach police officer liable in a wrongful death lawsuit surrounding the fatal shooting of 57-year-old Jeffrey Tyree in 2019. Tyree’s family was awarded $1 million when the verdict in that case was released in July.
According to Benton, Judge Eugene Cheek of the Richmond Circuit Court ruled on Monday that she and her attorneys have two weeks to submit a series of questions for the officers involved in her son’s case to the court. Only then will the court consider whether it will require the officers to answer her questions, Benton said.
“The outcome today was he is going to allow my lawyer to create a set of limited questions to be presented to the Attorney General,” Benton said.
The judge denied Benton’s request to interview the special agents assigned to investigate her son’s case.
In response to a public request by the NAACP’s Virginia State Conference to reevaluate Hill’s case, Attorney General Mark Herring said in March that he’d give the request “the careful consideration it deserves.”
In September, ABC8 reported that Virginia’s NAACP conference is persisting in its request that the attorney general and Gov. Ralph Northam act on Hill’s case.
In particular, they’re demanding that Herring officially prosecute the law enforcement involved in Hill’s death as well as other shootings by police. They also want the governor to provide local law enforcement with financial incentives to adopt policing standards that prioritize training and accountability. Lastly, the NAACP wants Northam to direct his administration to transform Virginia’s law enforcement officers into models of accountability, transparency and culturally responsive policing practices.
However, Herring’s office still hasn’t said if it will investigate Hill’s case.
To contact the attorney general’s office, you can call 804-786-2071 or email [email protected].