In a historic verdict, an inquest jury recommended Thursday that three Milwaukee police officers be criminally charged in connection with the in-custody death of Derek Williams in July 2011.
"I feel like Martin Luther King. I feel like Malcolm X. I feel like Rosa Parks," Williams' aunt, Mayleen Jordan, said after she and other family members walked out of the courtroom chanting Williams' name. "I feel great today. I feel like a winner."
Thursday marked the first time an inquest jury in Milwaukee County has recommended charges against a police officer in at least 25 years.
Three of the officers involved in the arrest of Williams, who died after gasping for air in the back of a squad car, should be charged with failure to render aid by a law enforcement officer, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of nine months in jail, jurors concluded.
Officer Richard Ticcioni put his knee across Williams' back during the arrest. Officers Jeffrey Cline and Jason Bleichwehl each spent time in the front seat of the squad car as Williams struggled to breathe for nearly eight minutes in the back, a squad video shows.
After Williams slumped over, unconscious, Bleichwehl then checked his pulse, propped him up in the seat and walked to a nearby supervisor's car, the video shows. Finding no one there, Bleichwehl returned to Williams and started CPR. Police and paramedics continued CPR for about 45 minutes before Williams was declared dead.
The three officers refused to testify during the inquest, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Four other police personnel also took the Fifth, but two of them ultimately testified after being granted immunity from prosecution.
Inquest verdicts are advisory. It will be up to special prosecutor John Franke, perhaps in cooperation with the state Department of Justice, to decide whether to issue the charges. Franke left court without comment after the verdict was announced.
Attorney Bridget Boyle, who represents Cline, said that while the jury found there was probable cause to believe a crime had been committed, there was a lot of testimony without cross-examination. It wasn't clear which parts of the testimony jurors relied on, she said. If the officers are charged, they'll likely take the case to trial, she said.
"We accept what the jury decided, and now we move forward and see where we'll be three, four or five months from now," Boyle said.
Attorneys for Ticcioni and Bleichwehl did not return telephone calls.
Williams, 22, a robbery suspect, was arrested after running about 11/2 blocks from police near the 2700 block of N. Buffum St. He had been released from jail earlier in the day, where he had been held for unpaid tickets. He had no criminal record.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm sought the inquest after a Journal Sentinel investigation prompted the medical examiner's office to change its ruling on the manner of death from natural to homicide. In forensic terms, homicide means "death at the hands of another" but does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.
Chisholm, the Police Department and the civilian Fire and Police Commission all watched the video months earlier and concluded police did nothing wrong, despite department rules requiring police to call for help immediately "if medical treatment becomes necessary." Chisholm wrote to Police Chief Edward Flynn that the officers had acted neither "unlawfully" nor "unprofessionally."
Faced with the homicide ruling, all three reopened their investigations.
Federal investigators also began a criminal investigation into Williams' death, which continues. The inquest has no bearing on its outcome. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice is considering whether to sue the Milwaukee Police Department for a possible pattern of civil rights abuses. Federal agents have been in court during the inquest, which began Feb. 11.
Mike Crivello, president of the Milwaukee Police Association, said that despite the jury's verdict, Franke should stand by the initial rulings.
Crivello, who said he was present for nearly every hour of testimony over seven days, said officers performed "admirably" and did everything in their power to save Williams.
"You heard testimony as to what the officers are experiencing at that moment in time. And when they believed that young man was in absolute distress, they rendered the proper aid. They went above and beyond the proper aid," Crivello said. "Our officers are taught to use protective masks when they give mouth-to- mouth resuscitation, and an officer dismissed that and went right to resuscitation because he wanted to save that young man's life."
He added: "Our officers did nothing wrong that night."
Ald. Milele Coggs also observed much of the inquest.
"I can unequivocally say it has been a worthwhile endeavor. The public is much more aware of the series of events that led up to Derek Williams' death, and they have seen firsthand as the wheels of justice begin to turn," she said in a statement. "But this specific case is still far from over, and Derek Williams' death is only one of a number of cases that constitute a broader federal investigation into the Milwaukee Police Department. It bears repeating that the proceedings of the last week are only the first steps in the march toward justice."
The Police Department released this statement: "Chief Flynn appreciates the diligence and professionalism of Special Prosecutor Franke. The Milwaukee Police Department has cooperated and will continue to cooperate with this process."
That statement is an about-face from the one Flynn issued after the revised medical examiner's report ruled the death a homicide. At that time, Flynn said he did not expect any officers to be criminally charged and said: "This second report contains no information that was not in the first report, nor does it present any new objective fact."
After the Journal Sentinel brought the video and other public records about Williams' death to light, some community leaders called for Flynn's resignation. Flynn proposed a series of what he called reforms and new policies. However, the Journal Sentinel found that similar reforms had been made in the past after previous deaths in police custody.
Chisholm named Franke, a former Milwaukee County judge and assistant U.S. attorney, as special prosecutor partly to counteract criticism that inquests in the county typically have been biased toward police.
In his closing statement Wednesday, Franke personified first a prosecutor then and a defense attorney, offering jurors arguments both for and against charges. He did not tell the jury what he believed or what he thought should happen.
The jury also found there was probable cause to believe Williams died of sickle cell crisis, the cause listed on both the initial autopsy report and the revised report. The difference: The first listed the manner of death as natural. The second listed the manner as homicide "due to flight from and altercation with police."
Williams did not have sickle cell disease; he had only the genetic marker for the condition, known as sickle cell trait. There is controversy in the medical field regarding whether people with the trait can die suddenly as a result of that condition.
Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Brian Peterson and his former assistant, Christopher Poulos, who performed the autopsy on Williams, stood by the rulings of homicide and sickle cell crisis during their inquest testimony. Other experts, however, testified there was not enough evidence to show Williams died of a sickle cell crisis. They also disagreed with the manner of death being called homicide. They classified both the cause and manner of death as "undetermined."
In finding probable cause that sickle cell crisis caused Williams' death, jurors sent a signal that they agreed with the medical examiner's homicide ruling.
Franke said before the inquest that he also might ask jurors to consider whether any police officers should be charged with reckless homicide, a felony. But as the testimony neared its conclusion, Franke told Judge Kevin Martens he did not feel the evidence would support that charge.
The law against failing to render aid by law enforcement was passed in 1983, after the death of Ernest Lacy in Milwaukee police custody. Lacy died after being arrested for a crime he did not commit. The original bill made the crime a felony if death resulted. However, that provision was removed before the law was passed by the Legislature.
The mother of Williams' three young children, Sharday Rose, said that while she still hopes federal authorities take action, she was happy about Thursday's recommendation for misdemeanor charges.
"At least they didn't get off, didn't walk away," she said of the officers. "It's a breath of relief. At least we can get some justice."
Williams' mother, Sonya Moore, said it was gratifying that after a year and a half, someone finally acknowledged that what police did to her son was wrong.
She said she appreciated the support of community members, who have convened regular protest marches and have demonstrated before the Fire and Police Commission since the video of Williams in the back of the squad car was made public last fall.
"We fought this fight, and it ain't over," Moore said. "No justice, no peace. And we're going to get justice."
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