The Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office has revised its ruling on the death of Derek Williams, who died in Milwaukee police custody in July 2011, from natural to homicide, according to the district attorney’s office.
The decision came after the Journal Sentinel alerted an assistant medical examiner to newly released records – including a video of a suffocating Williams pleading for help from the back of a squad car – and also made him aware of a national expert who said Williams, 22, did not die naturally of sickle cell crisis.
In making his initial determination of natural death more than a year ago, Assistant Medical Examiner Christopher Poulos did not review all of the police reports or a squad video recently obtained by the newspaper. The video shows a handcuffed Williams, his eyes rolled back, gasping for breath and begging for help in the back seat of a Milwaukee police car as officers ignore his pleas. The police reports include key details about Williams’ arrest that the medical examiner didn’t know.
As a result of the new ruling, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is reopening his investigation into whether criminal charges are warranted against any of the officers involved.
Chisholm, the Police Department and the Fire and Police Commission previously had cleared the officers of wrongdoing, largely based on the medical examiner’s earlier ruling of natural death.
“We’re going to revisit it. Absolutely,” Chisholm said. “The medical examiners are our experts in these cases. Without any question, we place a tremendous amount of weight in their determination. Any time they revisit one of their determinations, we really take that seriously.”
Chisholm emphasized, however, that the revised finding does not mean a crime was committed. Homicide in medical examiners’ parlance means “death at the hands of another.” In contrast, the crime of homicide requires prosecutors to prove intent to kill, reckless disregard for life or negligent disregard for life while operating a firearm or a vehicle.
In a statement, Milwaukee police Chief Edward Flynn said he did not expect any officers to be criminally charged as a result of the new ruling.
“This second report contains no information that was not in the first report, nor does it present any new objective facts,” the statement says.
In the video, which the paper initially requested last November, Williams struggles to breathe for seven minutes, 45 seconds, then slumps over, unconscious.
An officer then checks his pulse, props him up in the seat and walks to a nearby supervisor’s car. Finding no one there, the officer returns and starts CPR as a different officer calls for medical assistance. Police and paramedics continue CPR for more than 45 minutes before Williams is declared dead.
Along with Chisholm, Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission Executive Director Michael Tobin and internal affairs Lt. Alfonso Morales viewed the video months ago and determined officers had done nothing wrong, despite department rules requiring police to call for help immediately “if medical treatment becomes necessary.”
The Police Department’s Standard Operating Procedures go on to state: “It cannot be overemphasized that members shall continually monitor and remain cognizant of the condition of a person in custody, especially when he/she is in restraints. The arrestee may encounter immediate or delayed physical reactions that may be triggered by the change in physical or environmental factors. Therefore, caution and awareness on the part of the officer is constantly required.”
Flynn agreed with Morales’ conclusion that the officers did not violate department rules or the law.
Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz would not answer questions Friday. Via email, she noted that the department has instituted new training on recognizing and responding to medical distress, including sickle cell crisis, in prisoners.
Tobin said he would review the matter in light of the medical examiner’s revised findings.
Neither the two officers who arrested Williams nor the two officers who took turns sitting in the squad car while Williams was in back responded to email requests for interviews.
Poulos re-examined Williams’ case after the Journal Sentinel informed him that Werner U. Spitz, a forensic pathologist and one of the nation’s leading experts on death investigation, believed the death was a homicide.
Spitz reviewed the case at the newspaper’s request . Poulos said in March that he used Spitz’s work on sickle cell crisis as a resource in determining how Williams died.
“Is this a natural death? No. This is not a natural death,” Spitz told the Journal Sentinel.
Spitz said that while sickle cell crisis likely occurred, it was caused by an officer applying pressure to Williams’ back – and perhaps his neck – while he was facedown on the ground.
“This officer didn’t have the intention of killing him, but that doesn’t mean this kind of restraint should be performed,” Spitz said.
Spitz is co-author of the book “Medicolegal Investigation of Death,” considered the medical examiners’ bible. In addition to evaluating Poulos’ autopsy, he reviewed the video and police reports, which were released to the newspaper under a state open records law request.
The newspaper first requested the public records in November 2011. The department released the police reports in June and the video last week.
Williams’ loved ones wanted the video to be turned over to the newspaper and made available for the public to see, according to attorney Jonathan Safran, who represents Williams’ long-term girlfriend – with whom he had three young children – and Williams’ father.
The two are very upset that officers said Williams was breathing just fine and playing games, according to Safran.
“(Williams’ girlfriend and father) believe that it was obvious that he could not breathe, and they think it is important for others to see and hear the video and draw their own conclusions,” Safran said. “They are devastated by the depiction of what happened to Derek.”
The video does not show Williams being arrested or placed in the squad car.