Milwaukee Cop, Fired for Sexual Assault Charges, Found Not Guilty in Shooting That Led to Violent Protests
By Bruce Vielmetti
Former Milwaukee Police Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was found not guilty Wednesday in the on-duty fatal shooting of Sylville Smith that set off two days of violent unrest last year in parts of the Sherman Park neighborhood.
The verdict drew an emotional reaction in the courtroom, prompting the judge to clear the jury from the courtroom as deputies escorted members of the gallery outside.
Smith's father, Patrick Smith, immediately called for calm in the wake of the verdict.
"I want the community to calm down and come together," he said.
Smith's sister, Sherelle Smith, also made an emotional appeal while speaking with reporters.
"Don't give them a reason to take your life," she said. "Do something different in the community, try as hard as you can to be peaceful and form unity with each other ... black or white. Because we all bleed the same, we all hurt the same."
Earlier Wednesday, Smith's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Heaggan-Brown and the city of Milwaukee.
The verdict was just the latest of many acquittals in police shootings around the country, including one in Minnesota last week of the officer who fatally shot Philando Castile. Like that case, it involved suspects with guns, split-second decisions about self-defense and video evidence.
"Self-defense cases can be very difficult, but it's still our obligation to pursue those cases if we believe justice demands it," District Attorney John Chisholm said after the verdict. "You cannot base your judgments on what the public sentiment is."
Mayor Tom Barrett said there would be a strong police presence at Sherman Park on Wednesday, though as of the early evening, there were no reports of disruptions or violent protests around the city. In the playground outside the Boys and Girls Club in Sherman Park, dozens of people gathered to recall Smith's life and discuss the verdict.
"People have a right to gather to have their voices heard," Barrett said. "My strong request is that this is done in a peaceful manner. Nothing good can come of anything that's not peaceful."
Because he remains in custody on a pending, unrelated sexual assault charge, Heaggan-Brown, 25, did not get walked out of the courtroom. He was fired in October after those charges were filed, not for the shooting, and prosecutors were barred from referring to him as "a former officer" during his nine-day trial.
His lead attorney, Jonathan Smith, said his client was relieved and grateful for the jury's decision in a difficult case.
"But there is no joy in a case like this," said Jonathan Smith's partner, Steven Kohn. "We must be mindful that a young man lost his life and had impacted the community enormously."
Chisholm noted the rarity in Wisconsin of authorities bringing charges against a police officer for on-duty-related homicide.
"There's this sense of unease that the community has when they see these officer-involved deaths," he said. "And they want some accountability for it. This is one instance where they were able to get that public accountability."
Heaggan-Brown was only the second Milwaukee police officer to be charged in an on-duty homicide in modern history.
Chisholm said the case was the rare one that he felt "very strongly" he could charge and prove, aided greatly by video from body cameras worn by Heaggan-Brown and his partner. He said it was important for the community, through the jury, to make the decision.
"That's what they've done. I don't have to agree with the decision, but I have to respect that," he said.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said the jury's verdict "was based on the objective evidence before it."
"A year ago I told the public I'd seen nothing in the video that was a violation of the law or policy," Flynn said in a statement. "The jury saw the same evidence and came to the same conclusion."
Michael Crivello, president of the Milwaukee Police Association who watched much of the trial, thanked the jury on the MPA's Facebook page.
"Because of good citizens such as all of you, our officers know that the greater community respects, supports and backs the badge."
Others called the outcome painful and predictable.
"I share my community's frustration and continue to be saddened by the tragic loss of life and lack of justice we are all too familiar with in Milwaukee," said Democratic state Sen. LaTonya Johnson of Milwaukee.
Democratic state Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee said. "When families lose a loved one in a preventable situation by a system that should be there to protect and serve them, it's a deep-rooted, painful and traumatic situation."
Bowen said the video evidence had raised expectations of a conviction.
"It's unfortunate that the pain that people experienced last summer will only be relived," he said.
Heaggan-Brown was charged with first-degree reckless homicide, punishable by up to 40 years in prison. The jury could have found him guilty of lesser charges of second-degree reckless homicide or homicide by negligent operation of a firearm.
The jury, which included four African-Americans, was sequestered at an area hotel for nine days, part of a tighter-than-normal security procedure adopted for the trial. It included having all spectators pass through a second metal detector outside the courtroom. The jury deliberated about 10 hours.
Heaggan-Brown and two other officers were doing overtime patrol on Aug. 13 prior to the start of their regular 4 p.m. shifts.
They pulled up on a car parked too far from the curb that they suspected of being involved in a drug transaction. Smith ran from the car with a gun and turned into a gangway between two nearby homes when he fell at a fence and dropped his gun.
Heaggan-Brown, who was chasing Smith on foot along with another officer, shot him once in the arm as Smith rose from the ground, grabbed the gun and turned partly toward the officers as he threw the gun over the fence. Less than two seconds later, after Smith had fallen to his back, Heaggan-Brown shot Smith in the chest.
The entire 12-second incident was captured by body cameras worn by both officers. The videos, and Heaggan-Brown's statement to state investigators two days later, became central evidence to the state's case. Jurors watched both videos multiple times, in actual speed, slow motion and frame by frame.
Prosecutors say the first shot was justified self-defense, but that Heaggan-Brown's second shot was a felony. Heaggan-Brown told investigators he feared Smith was reaching for a second gun. His attorney argued to jurors that the justification for the first shot clearly carried over to the less-than-a-second that passed before Heaggan-Brown decided to shoot again, as Smith continued moving.
During the trial, Chisholm noted that Heaggan-Brown didn't pat down Smith after the second shot, a strange omission if he truly believed Smith might still be armed.
The sole defense witness was an expert in police training and use of force, who told jurors Heaggan-Brown acted in accordance with his training, to always assume a subject with a weapon has another one, what the expert called the "plus one rule."
Within a couple hours of the verdict, the state Department of Justice, whose Division of Criminal Investigation reviewed the incident, posted all the investigative reports, recordings and other materials online.
With numerous Milwaukee police squad cars and a few Milwaukee County sheriff's cars patrolling the Sherman Park neighborhood, people began to gather outside the Boys and Girls Club early Wednesday evening to discuss the verdict.
"The jury came to that decision because that was their choice," said Smith's cousin, Thaddeus Ashford. "Jurors did their job. We have to deal with it."
Cynthia Greenwood, a friend of Smith's family, was upset at the verdict _ though not shocked.
"I wasn't surprised. I knew they would find the monster not guilty," said Greenwood.
Deloris Jones said she wanted to support the Smith family and said she could help but think of her own children.
"It could have been my baby," she said.
(Michelle Liu, Bill Glauber, Meg Jones, Haley Hansen, Lillian Price and Ashley Luthern contributed to this report.)
(c)2017 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel