Story for The UpTake by Tracey Pollock
A Milwaukee jury was shown dramatic and disturbing video Tuesday of a 13-year-old boy being shot at point-blank range by a 75-year-old neighbor who confronted him in front of the boy’s home while the youth was bringing in garbage bins from the curb. The boy, Darius Simmons, died after being shot on May 31, 2012 by neighbor John Spooner, a self-proclaimed “gun nut” whose murder trial in the racially charged case began Monday.
The video, taken by Spooner’s own home security system, shows Spooner confronting the black youth, apparently to accuse him of having stolen guns from Spoonr’s South Side home. Waving a .32-caliber pistol in the air while accosting the youth — and as Darius’ mother watched with horror from her home — Spooner shoots the teen in the chest. Simmons turns and runs a short distance away before collapsing and dying, off camera, as his family ran to his assistance and Spooner continued to wave his gun in the air and make threats.
Video courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Caution: Video is graphic and disturbing.
The controversial case has been compared to the Trayvon Martin killing in Floriday, in which an unarmed black youth was followed, confronted and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Community activists have linked Simmons’ death with that of Martin and Derek WIlliams and the broader context of systematic injustice and racism.
Spooner, now 76, does not deny that he shot and killed Simmons’ and has entered an insanity plea, saying that either he did not have the ability to recognize the consequences of his actions or to conform his behaviors to fit within the law. The trial is taking place in two phases, beginning with first degree intentional homicide charges and the second being the “insanity” phase. Spooner could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted and found mentally competent.
The first day of the trial was consumed by jury selection, which was complicated by Saturday’s Florida acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer. The jury pool was asked if they had heard of the George Zimmerman case and whether their opinion of that case would alter their ability to be an impartial juror in the trial for Spooner.
Out of a pool of 40 potential jurors, 14 were selected, with two being alternates. Eleven of the jurors are white; one juror is black. District Attorney Mark Williams challenged the racial composition of the trial saying that it was unfair the defense had struck all but one black juror. This challenge was overruled by the judge Tuesday morning. The rest of Tuesday provided testimony of the confrontation that led to Simmons’ death in chronological order.
Darius Simmons was a young teenager who was involved in his church,All People’s Church, enjoyed gardening and basketball. He, his brother and mother had lived in their south side home for about a month when the confrontation with Spooner occurred. Simmons had stayed home sick from school on May 31, 2012. He had just finished bringing in the trash bin when Spooner confronted him and accused him of stealing shotguns from his house.
In dramatic testimony, Darrius’ mother told the jury how she had witnessed the shooting of her son from her front porch.
The mother, Patricia Larry, testified that she asked Spooner why he was pointing a gun at “my baby.”
Spooner, she testified, replied that he was “going to teach him not to steal. And he shot him.”
Larry ran to her son’s side after the shooting to check for a pulse. She pulled up his shirt “and I could see that he had a bullet hole.”
Several Milwaukee police officers testified Tuesday that they were in contact with Spooner every day since he had first reported the burglary on May 28. One officer said she and her partner had canvassed the block, spoke with people at Simmons’ household and had determined there was not sufficient evidence that they, or anyone else on the block had broken into Spooner’s home.
Spooner admitted to shooting the boy as he was being handcuffed by police after the incident. Once in the squad car, Spooner told an officer that he “knew the boy was nothing but trouble.”
The police then detained Patricia Larry and conducted a search of her home for the firearms that Spooner had accused the boy of stealing, consented to by Larry in the back of the squad car as she was begging to be taken to the hospital to see her son. Larry repeatedly asked to be taken to the hospital to see her son but was not allowed as she was a witness to the crime and her house was being searched. By the time she was allowed to go to the hospital, Darius had been declared dead.
The police did not find any of the stolen property in their home. According to Larry’s attorney, John Safran, Larry came home from the hospital to her house having been torn apart by the search. At the same time, Spooner’s family members were allowed to freely go in and out of his house without police surveillance.
Spooner’s trial is expected to endi later this week.
Pastor Steve Jerbi, the victim’s pastor, has taken an active roll in helping support Darius’ family over the past year.
“We believe Mr. Spooner is guilty of this, and that he knew right from wrong,” Jerbi said. “We are looking for a conviction, but at the same time know that no matter what the jury has come back with, it doesn’t change the fact that Darius is dead.
“The community has been so supportive of every step of this process, first in the outreach, showing up with strong support at the funeral, but really it’s the continued love and support that folks have shown,” Jerbi said. “On the one year anniversary of his death, we planted a garden of hope, and chose herbs with healing properties as a symbol, not just of what was lost, but what is possible to overcome prejudice and assumptions and start working together.”
The Milwaukee Community is watching this case very closely. A year of protests have erupted over this case and that of Derek Williams, who died in the back of a police squad car.