In 25 Years, No Charges Recommended in Milwaukee Inquests

The following, originally posted on The Journal Sentinel, was submitted by Joe.

In more than 25 years, no Milwaukee County inquest jury has recommended criminal charges against a police officer involved in a fatal shooting or in-custody death.

From the time he took office in 2007 until last month, District Attorney John Chisholm had never ordered an inquest – largely because he didn’t want to give families false hope that officers would be charged.

Last fall, when Chisholm first reviewed the July 2011 death of Derek Williams in Milwaukee police custody, he employed the same philosophy: He met with Williams’ family members and their attorneys, showed them the squad video that captured Williams’ pleas for help and struggle to breathe, and explained why he believed the officers involved acted professionally and in accordance with the law. He would not give them a copy of the video.

And he refused to call for an inquest.

But now, after a revised finding from the medical examiner and a public outcry, he’s changed his mind.

“There are some cases where a public inquest is appropriate, and this is one of those cases,” Chisholm said last week. “There was a change in the medical finding and there needs to be public scrutiny of the entire process, and I do not have a problem with that.”

His decision to order an inquest came late last month, after the video was posted on JSOnline and the medical examiner changed the ruling in the case from natural death to homicide as the result of a Journal Sentinel investigation. The newspaper first requested the video and police reports regarding the case in November 2011.

Homicide in forensic terms means “death at the hands of another,” and does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.

Chisholm, the Police Department and the civilian Fire and Police Commission – all of whom viewed the video months ago and cleared the officers involved – have reopened their inquiries in light of the medical examiner’s new ruling.

While Chisholm now says there is value in a public airing of the facts, critics say the inquest process is inherently biased.

Under the law, the prosecutor is the only lawyer with a voice in the proceedings. Inquest jurors never hear from the families of the dead or from their attorneys, unless the prosecutor agrees to ask witnesses their questions. There is no cross-examination. Witnesses may only be called by prosecutors, who critics say are inclined to clear officers because they work closely with police and rely on them to build cases.

Attorneys who have represented the families of the dead say unless substantive changes are made to the process, the Williams inquest will be little more than window dressing.

“They just put out the bare bones evidence and nobody argued in favor of it being criminal,” said Milwaukee attorney Merrick Domnitz, who has represented families in inquests over the past 35 years. “It was the district attorney presenting evidence against their partners in the criminal justice system. Time and time again, that just left the public feeling empty about the result.”

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