NEW: Sylville Smith's family files lawsuit against Dominique Heaggan-Brown and the city
Smith's father appeals for calm in the community
Dominique Heaggan-Brown, the former Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot Sylville Smith during an August 2016 foot chase, was found not guilty of first-degree reckless homicide on Wednesday.
Members of Smith’s family could be heard crying in court as the verdict was read. Smith’s death sparked days of unrest in Milwaukee.
Shortly after the verdict, Smith family attorney David Owens said they had filed a lawsuit against Heaggan-Brown and the city. The suit claims Milwaukee kept the former officer on the job despite a “pervasive pattern of excessive force and misconduct,” including at least 16 “use of force” incidents.
Judge Jeffrey Conen had instructed the jury of nine women and three men to consider lesser charges in the reckless homicide trial but Heaggan-Brown was cleared of all counts.
Outside court, Smith’s sister called for peace and his father, Patrick, said the verdict was “disrespectful.”
“Why are they trained to kill when they’re supposed to protect and serve us?” Patrick Smith said of police officers. “There is no justice here.”
He added, “I want the community to calm down and come together.”
Smith’s sister Sherelle had a message for young people: “Don’t give them a reason to take your life. Do something different in the community, try as hard as you can to be peaceful.”
“We pursued it aggressively and we presented a strong case,” he told reporters. “This is just an issue that this community had to decide. They made that decision.”
Defense attorney Jonathan Smith said his client was “gratified” over the acquittal, CNN affiliate WISN-TV reported.
“Obviously, everyone recognizes there was a loss of life, and I don’t think any officer would want to be put in that situation and to have to make those decisions that he did, but those decisions were made, and I think the jury properly evaluated them,” Smith said.
Convictions rare in police shootings
The verdict comes at a time of increasingly strained relations between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
Heaggan-Brown was the third US law enforcement officer to be tried for shooting a black man in the last week. Convictions are rare.
On Friday, Minnesota police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of intentional discharge of a firearm that endangers safety for the fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop last year. In May, Tulsa police Officer Betty Shelby was acquitted in the shooting death of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man.
In Cincinnati, a jury began deliberations Monday in the retrial of former University of Cincinnati police Officer Ray Tensing in the fatal shooting of a motorist during a July 2015 traffic stop.
“The community relies on, depends and respects their law enforcement partners,” Chisholm said.
“At the same time, they understand that this tremendous amount of discretionary power is given to police officers – the power over life and death in certain circumstances – and they want that to be accountable. But when they look at it closely they’re looking at a circumstance which was fairly unique. … You can’t compare this to St. Paul. You can’t compare it to Ferguson.”
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, in a statement via Twitter, said, “A year ago I told the public I’d seen nothing in the video that was a violation of the law or policy. The jury saw the same evidence and came to the same conclusion.”
The prosecutor argued that Heaggan-Brown fatally shot Smith as the suspect attempted to surrender. But the former officer’s attorney countered that his client made a split-second decision to protect his life and that of another officer.
Less than a year after the police shooting death of Sylville Smith sparked days of unrest in a northwest Milwaukee neighborhood, a jury resumes deliberations Wednesday in the reckless homicide trial of the former officer who fired the fatal shots.
Dominique Heaggan-Brown, 25, could face 60 years in prison if he’s convicted.
Body-camera video from another officer – which was played for the jury last week – showed that Heaggan-Brown shot a second bullet into Smith’s chest after the suspect hurled his weapon over a fence and had his hands near his head. Smith was on the ground when he received the fatal shot.
The jury heard closing arguments and deliberated about five hours on Tuesday, one day after the defense rested by calling its lone witness, police use of force expert Robert Willis, CNN affiliate WISN reported.
“Mr. Heaggan-Brown knew at the time he fired that second shot that Sylville Smith had already disarmed himself,” Chisholm told the jury, WISN-TV reported.
“He knew that Sylville Smith was attempting to surrender.”
But defense attorney Smith argued his client followed training and fired the second, fatal shot because he believed his life was in danger.
“The state admits that the first shot was a justified shot,” the lawyer told the jury, according to the station.
“And our argument is that justification did not change over the course of 1.69 seconds between shots.”
The defense rested Monday after calling its lone witness, Robert Willis, an expert in police use of force.
Willis testified that Heaggan-Brown acted in “accordance with his training,” CNN affiliate WTMJ reported.
Willis’ testimony centered on the 1.69 seconds that separated the two shots. He testified that Heaggan-Brown’s decision to fire again was made before he actually pulled the trigger. The use of force expert told the jury that the second shot was justified because officers are trained to assume a suspect may have more than one weapon.
Heaggan-Brown experienced the encounter in “real time,” not in frame by frame motion as it was shown to the jury, Willis said, according to WTMJ.