MILWAUKEE (AP) — Three Milwaukee police officers who ignored a suspect's pleas for help as he gasped for air in the back of a squad car should face misdemeanor charges in his death, a jury concluded at an inquest Thursday.
After seven days of testimony, the six jurors unanimously concluded there was probable cause to believe a crime was committed when Derek Williams died in July 2011.
Special prosecutor John Franke will consider the jury's recommendation in deciding whether to formally charge the officers. The three officers refused to testify during the inquest, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The officers were not present when the verdict was read in court.
The jury also found that there was probable cause that Williams — who had the genetic marker for sickle cell but not the disease itself — died of sickle cell crisis.
The 22-year-old robbery suspect was arrested after running about a block and a half. He had been released from jail earlier in the day, where he had been held for unpaid tickets. He had no criminal record. A video shows that for nearly eight minutes, he struggled to breathe and begged for help while officers ignored his pleas, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
In his closing statement Wednesday, Franke presented arguments both in favor of charges and against charges. On one hand, he said, half a dozen neighbors testified that they heard Williams repeatedly say he couldn't breathe as he was arrested and taken to the squad car.
"As they put him into the squad car in the condition he was in, all that was needed was a simple check ... or a call for help. They didn't do it, and we have seen the result," Franke said.
On the other hand, Franke pointed out that the officers eventually performed CPR and called paramedics. The officers said they thought Williams was faking his illness.
Franke decided earlier against asking the inquest jury to consider felony charges against any officers in connection with Williams' death, because of the complexity of the medical evidence and lingering uncertainty about why Williams died.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm sought the inquest after a Journal Sentinel investigation prompted the medical examiner's office to change its ruling in Williams' death from natural to homicide. In forensic terms, homicide means "death at the hands of another" but does not necessarily mean a crime was committed. Chisholm named Franke, a former Milwaukee County judge and assistant U.S. attorney, as special prosecutor in part to counteract criticism that county inquests typically have been biased toward police.
In more than 25 years, no Milwaukee County inquest jury has recommended criminal charges against a police officer in a fatal shooting or in-custody death.
The Milwaukee Police Department said in a statement Thursday that Police Chief Ed Flynn "appreciates the diligence and professionalism" of the special prosecutor.
"The Milwaukee Police Department has cooperated and will continue to cooperate with this process," the statement said.
Mayor Tom Barrett said he and Flynn called for an independent investigation after the medical examiner's office changed its ruling. He also noted that Milwaukee police have changed their operating procedures, so officers must call for medical help when someone has health problems.
"As today's findings are vetted and work their way through the legal process, I ask everyone to remain patient and respectful of the process," Barrett said in a statement Thursday.
Milwaukee Common Council President Willie L. Hines Jr. said Thursday he was pleased by the jury's recommendation.
"I am grateful to hear that some strides toward justice are being made in the death of Derek Williams," Hines said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. "This verdict marks a significant advancement in an attempt to hold individual police officers accountable for their actions."
A federal criminal investigation into Williams' death continues. The U.S. Department of Justice also is considering whether to sue the Milwaukee Police Department over a possible pattern of civil rights abuses.