BREAKING: An UpTake UpDate: 12:37 p.m. March 28: No criminal charges will be brought against Milwaukee police officers involved in the death of Derek Williams. A six-person jury hearing an inquest into Williams’ death returned a verdict on Feb. 21 recommending that three officers be charged with misdemeanors for failing to render necessary medical aid to Williams as he was having trouble breathing and begging for help before he died in [police custody in 2011. But prosecutor John Franke has decided NOT to bring charges in the case. Stay on The UpTake for more details.
A Wisconsin prosecutor conducting an inquest into the controversial 2011 death of Derek Williams while in the custody of Milwaukee police has ruled out the possibility of homicide charges against the police officers who arrested Williams and were holding him, handcuffed in a squad car, when he died after experiencing breathing difficulties.
Special Prosecutor John Franke decided not to ask jurors in the inquest to consider any felony charges in the July 6, 2011 death of Williams, a 22-year-old father of three with no criminal record who was chased and arrested by police after an alleged attempted street robbery. Franke said there was not enough evidence to substantiate a homicide charge, in part due to conflicting testimony as to the cause of Williams’ death. A county coroner ruled that Williams died due to a “sickle cell crisis” that prevented his blood from carrying sufficient oxygen, while other expert witnesses cast doubt on that finding and suggested Williams might have suffocated because of the force applied by police as he was being arrested.
Three officers, however, still face the possibility of being charged with a failure to render necessary medical aid, a misdemeanor that could lead, potentially, to jail time or police discipline. Six jurors who heard seven days of testimony at the inquest deliberated for four hours Wednesday without reaching a verdict and are scheduled to resume deliberations Thursday. They must also decide whether Williams died due to a sudden onset of a condition known as “sickle cell crisis” or died accidentally or because of police conduct.
Franke gave a two hour closing summation to an inquest that included 40 witnesses, many of whom gave dramatically conflicting testimony, particularly over the question of whether police ignored Williams’ repeated pleadings for help. Six witnesses testified they heard Williams saying he could not breathe, and a police video from the squad car in which Williams was held showed him begging for help while two officers in the front seat of the squad appeared to ignore his requests until he collapsed.
Community activists and Williams family members have alleged that the incident is part of a long-standing pattern of police misconduct and brutality, and it is unclear how the decision to withdraw the possibility of felony charges in the case may affect troubled police-community relations.
Testimony about the incident came from two police officers who were among seven who initially refused to give evidence by invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Franke agreed to give the two immunity from prosecution in return for their testimony. But both officers had difficulty remembering the details of the event and gave only a limited account of Williams’ death.
Police detectives who interviewed officers about their involvement said they considered the incident routine and never even watched graphic squad-car video of Williams’ death until the recording was released to the media more than a year later. A similar lack of unusual interest seemed to afflict other officers on the scene.
Officer Patrick Coe, one of the officers granted immunity, testified that he remembered a fellow officer, Richard Ticcioni, using a stabilization effort known as the three point ground stabilization on WIlliams. This is done when an officer grabs a suspect’s left hand, puts a left knee into the small of the suspect’s back, and his right knee into the suspect’s shoulder, immobilizing the suspect, face down. Coe testified that he heard WIlliams say that he could not breathe at some point while he was on the ground before being brought to the squad car, but not at any point afterwards. He also testified that Williams walked to the squad car with no difficulty except for a small amount of passive resistance.
Sergent Robert Thiel testified that nothing was out of the ordinary, that he never heard Williams say that he couldn’t breathe or saw Ticcioni have any sort of physical contact with Williams. Both officers testified in response to numerous questions that they could not recall details of the incident. The officers facing possible misdemeanor charges for failing to assist Williams include
Ticcioni as well as officers Jeffrey Cline and Jason Bleichwehl, who were in the front of the squad car while Williams gasped for air in the back.
Regardless of the decision by the inquest jury, federal criminal charges may still be filed against officers in the case. A federal civil suit against individual officers for the damages to Williams’ estate is also under consideration.