The inquest into the death of Derek Williams while in the custody of Milwaukee police resumes today after a week when seven police officers refused to testify and conflicting testimony was taken from medical professionals, family members and eyewitnesses. The inquest into the 2011 death of the 22-year-old father of three, who collapsed and died in the back of a police car, is expected to conclude after a day or two of additional testimony. But whether the inquest will answer the concerns of his family and community activists who believe Williams was the victim of police misconduct, remains as unclear as ever.
The inquest was called after a Milwaukee County Medical Examiner changed the classification of Williams’ death from natural causes to homicide, sparking months of protests in Milwaukee against police misconduct that family and community members believe was the cause of Williams’ death.
Witnesses at the inquest, which could produce criminal charges against police, provided conflicting views of events surrounding the arrest, Williams’ collapse in the back seat of a squad car, and even the exact cause of his death. The inquest is being watched closely in a city with a long history of troubled relations between police and the African-American community and a backdrop of recent protests over alleged police misconduct and brutality.
Seven police officers were subpoenaed to testify as to their actions on the night of July 5, 2011, and into the early morning of July 6, when Williams died. All refused to answer, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. None of the officers, including Sgt. Todd Kaul, who was in charge of the scene where Williams died and who appeared at the inquest in uniform, even acknowledged that they are employed by the Milwaukee Police Department.
Special prosecutor John Franke, who is heading the inquest, pressed Kaul to admit the obvious, and asked why Kaul would not testify that he is a Milwaukee police officer. “Does that uniform and badge indicate you work for the Milwaukee Police Department,” Franke asked.
Kaul, following the advice of police union attorneys, declined to answer.
The jurors hearing the inquest were not present to hear the officers decline to give testimony.
An UpTake update:6:35 pm. Monday, Feb. 18. Prosecutor Franke said Monday he has offered immunity from prosecution to two Milwaukee police officers involved in the Derek Williams arrest. The two are expected to testify Tuesday.
Other police officers who did testify about responding to an armed robbery attempt and participating in a foot chase of Williams said they were unaware that Williams complained of not being able to breathe until just before he became unconscious in the back of the squad car. Eyewitnesses, however, contradicted police reports and said Williams was begging for medical help for about 15 minutes, from the time of his arrest until he died.
Terri Giles, who lives near the yard where Williams was arrested, testified she could hear a man yelling that he couldn’t breathe while he was being arrested, and saw at least five officers involved in the arrest of the man. The next time she saw the man there was a yellow sheet covering him.
Police detectives who investigated Williams’ death testified that they never viewed the video tape of his death in the squad car until it was played in the media over a year after his death.
From the start of the inquest, several medical professionals clashed over the precise cause of Williams’ death and the reasons why county coroners changed their finding from death due to natural causes to death due to homicide. Christopher Poulos, the assistant county medical examiner who resigned after reclassifying Williams’ death as a homicide, and Brian Peterson, current Milwaukee County Medical Examiner, each testified that Williams died of sickle cell crisis.
Sickle cell crisis occurs when someone with sickle cell trait or disease experiences a sudden change in red blood cells that can block off oxygen to vital organs and can cause death.
Poulos and Peterson pointed to a study of Army recruits and college athletes with sickle cell trait who died during great exertion in basic training or athletic training. Williams, chased by police as a suspect in an attempted street robbery, had run about 500 feet before being arrested. Both examiners testified that they changed the classification of death from natural to homicide after they learned that force had been applied to Williams during his arrest. Police reports state that Williams had been resisting arrest and officers pushed him to the ground and at one point had a knee on his back to restrain him. Neither coroner testified about how much force was used or how much force they believed had been used to restrain Williams.
Another witness, Alice Briones of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office, disagreed sharply with Poulos and Peterson. She testified that it is difficult to tell whether the change in red blood cells occurred before or after Williams’ death. She said her office did not have enough information to make a classification of death other than a finding of undetermined.
Another expert, Dr. Harry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in sickle cell crisis and disease, cast doubt on the coroners’ finding, saying it is highly unusual for a person like Williams, who had sickle cell trait but not the actual disease, to die during a sickle-cell crisis. On the other hand, he said, anyone could suffocate to death, as Williams appeared to do as he gasped for air and pleaded for help while handcuffed and held in the back of a squad car — a graphic scene captured on police video and shown to jurors in the inquest.
Williams’ mother, Sonya Moore, and his father, Derek WIlliams Sr., both rushed to the scene after learning that Derek was unconscious and receiving CPR.
Moore testified that her son was dead by the time she reached the scene. A detective asked her to identify her son based on a photograph of his body that only showed his head, from chin to forehead. The detective refused to show her the squad car video showing her son or see his body. Williams’ father also testified that police refused to let him see his son’s body when he arrived. Both parents said Williams did not have any known health problems or complained of breathing problems or chest pains.
Sharday Rose, Williams’ girlfriend, testified that Williams had been released from jail earlier on the day before his death in the early morning of July 6, 2011, after being arrested because of delinquent traffic tickets. Williams had no previous criminal record.
Williams had come to Rose’s house earlier in the day and again in the evening to spend time with Rose and the couples’ three small children. Rose gave Williams’ some money to buy some soda and chips from a nearby gas station while they watched movies. Not long after Williams left on the errand, a relative arrived to tell her — mistakenly — that Williams had been shot.
Rose drove to the scene and testified she could hear Williams yelling that he couldn’t breathe as soon as she got out of her car. She went to the squad car, where Williams was unresponsive to her questions, swaying back and forth saying he couldn’t breathe. Shortly after that, a police officer pulled Williams from the squad car, onto the ground, and started to perform CPR on him. Rose was then detained in the back of a police car for the remainder of the night, never being told by the police officer why she was in the back of a squad car.
The arrest report alleges that Williams attempted to rob a couple while wearing a Joker mask from the popular Batman movie series. A police officer saw the incident unfolding as he was driving by, did a U-turn and Williams allegedly ran from the scene. Williams was arrested in a yard less than a block away. Sam Tooke, one of the victims of the robbery attempt, testified that a man approached him and attempted to grab his wallet. Tooke said he glimpsed the robber for 2 or 3 seconds before he ran from police, but did not identify Williams as the alleged robber.
In the final days of the inquest, witnesses will testify to what they viewed on the night of Williams’ death and a jury will decide whether criminal charges should be brought against any of the police officers involved in his arrest. Although Williams’ death is classified as a “homicide,” that does not mean that his death resulted from any criminal act.