The Corner

Law & the Courts

This Acquittal Was Correct — Jury Exonerates Cop in Milwaukee Shooting

Each police shooting has to be evaluated on its own facts Today, a Milwaukee jury rightly acquitted former police officer Dominique Heaggen-Brown in the 2016 shooting of Sylville Smith — a shooting that led to unrest in the city. This case was markedly different from the Philando Castile shooting, and the prosecution was highly problematic. 

Smith ran from a traffic stop, approached a chain-link fence, and turned to face the pursuing officers, gun in hand. Heaggan-Brown fired his first shot — a shot the prosecution conceded was lawful — and then fired the second, fatal shot less than two seconds later, just after Smith had thrown away his pistol. The prosecution claimed that the second shot constituted reckless homicide. 

The problem with the prosecution is obvious. A police officer who reasonably perceives a mortal threat (as the officer did here) doesn’t shoot, reflect, observe, and shoot again. He shoots until the threat is neutralized. The officer’s expert witness was right:

The defense rested Monday after calling its lone witness, Robert Willis, an expert in police use of force, according to WISN.

Willis testified that Heaggan-Brown acted in “accordance with his training,” CNN affiliate WTMJ-TV reported.

His testimony centered on the 1.69 seconds separating the two shots. He testified the officer’s decision to fire again was made before he even pulled the trigger. The second shot was justified, Willis told the jury, 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.

“So when we see the trigger being pulled, we have to not consider that the moment of decision,” he said. “It’s not. We have to go back — and I can’t tell exactly how many frames but we have to go back two-tenths or three-tenths of a second — we have to go back several frames … to delve into the decision-making process that goes into firing this shot.”

The officer chose his witness well. According to CNN, Willis “wrote the use of force manual used by Milwaukee police officers.”

Smith’s confrontation with police created exactly the situation the law is designed to address. We can’t impute god-like perception to police officers, and the split-second reasonable decision to fire on an armed suspect isn’t something that has to be reconsidered with every pull of the trigger. In this case, the jury reached the just result. 

 

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