MILWAUKEE (AP) — A woman whose boyfriend died in police custody despite gasping for air and pleading for help is considering filing a lawsuit, her lawyer said Tuesday after the U.S. Justice Department said the three officers would not face federal charges.
Robbery suspect Derek Williams died in July 2011 after fleeing about a block and a half from officers. The medical examiner's office initially classified the death as natural, saying he died of sickle cell crisis — he had the genetic marker for sickle cell but not the disease itself. It was reclassified as a homicide after an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A video obtained by the newspaper showed the 22-year-old struggling to breathe and pleading for help from the backseat of a police car for nearly eight minutes, then growing progressively weaker and collapsing. Police eventually performed CPR and called paramedics. Williams was dead within an hour.
The U.S. Department of Justice and FBI investigated but could not find enough evidence to support charging the officers involved with depriving a person's rights under the color of law, U.S. Attorney James Santelle told reporters Tuesday.
A special prosecutor previously declined to file state charges for similar reasons. In March, the inquest jury found probable cause to support charging the three officers in state court with failure to render aid. But special prosecutor John Franke said he wasn't confident he could meet the standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
To bring federal charges, Santelle would have to prove the officers had specific intent to deprive Williams of his rights.
"Mistake, misperception, negligence or poor judgment are not sufficient" to bring federal charges, Santelle said. However, he declined to say whether there was evidence of mistake, misperception or poor judgment.
Derek Williams's mother wept silently throughout the news conference, wiping her reddened eyes with the back of her hand. Afterward she told reporters she hasn't been able to sleep since her son died.
"Everyone that's seen that tape knows that was some wrongdoing," Sonya Moore said, fighting back tears. "This is not justice. This is not justice. ... I'm so hurt right now."
Her attorney, Robin Shellow, said she was angry when Santelle declined to offer an opinion on whether the police officers did anything wrong. She also said the reason none of the white police officers was being held accountable is because Williams is black and that the justice system in Milwaukee doesn't care about black people.
"They have no opinion because the lives of young black men don't merit an opinion. That's what I heard," Shellow said.
Shellow said it was too early to discuss a lawsuit. But Jonathan Safran, who represents Williams' girlfriend, Sharday Rose, said his client is seriously considering legal action.
"We certainly think that someone needs to be held accountable," Safran said, "and to this date no one has been held accountable."
FBI agents who looked into the case found no medical evidence to back reports that police used excessive force on Williams or knowingly ignored his apparent medical distress, the Justice Department said. It also said the squad-car video does not show the scene from the officers' vantage point and there's no evidence that officers were watching Williams on the video monitor or for the entire time.
Franke, the special prosecutor, had noted in his report that the squad-car video was filmed with an infrared camera that produces a clearer image than what police would have seen on that dark night. He also wrote that officers' views might have been compromised by glare from their laptops reflecting on the plastic window between the front and back seats.
The officers — Jason Bleichwehl, Jeffrey Cline and Richard Ticcioni — declined to testify during the inquest, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Other officers testified that they thought Williams was faking.
The Justice Department is still reviewing whether it should sue the Milwaukee Police Department for a pattern of civil-rights violations.
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said in a statement that the department has taken significant steps to prevent similar tragedies and is committed to regaining the community's trust wherever it is weakened.
Associated Press writer M.L. Johnson contributed to this report.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.
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