The prosecutor who charged a former Milwaukee police officer with killing Sylville Smith in a shooting that sparked riots in Wisconsin’s largest city said he’s not trying to send a message to the public about police use-of-force.
District Attorney John Chisholm said he’s confident the facts support the felony reckless homicide charge against Dominique Heaggan-Brown.
Heaggan-Brown shot Sylville Smith, 23, during a traffic stop in August. According to court documents, body cameras Heaggan-Brown and his partner wore showed Smith had a gun but was unarmed when Heaggan-Brown, who is also black, fired the fatal shot.
The shooting ignited two nights of riots. The violence followed similar unrest in cities from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore in response to the deaths of black men at the hands of police. The killings sparked the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement calling for major changes in how police deal with minority communities.
Heaggan-Brown was fired in October over unrelated charges in a sexual assault case but the city had been waiting for months to see whether prosecutors would charge him in the shooting. Chisholm did just that Dec. 15, when he quietly filed the felony reckless homicide charge against Heaggan-Brown.
Police Chief Ed Flynn questioned Chisholm’s decision, saying Heaggan-Brown faced a “combat situation.” Flynn said he hoped Chisholm had more evidence than he’s released so far.
Chisholm addressed reporters for the first time in the matter after Heaggan-Brown made his initial court appearance De. 16. The district attorney said he understands Flynn’s perspective but stressed he made the charging decision based on the facts. He said he wasn’t trying to signal to minorities the criminal justice system can treat them fairly.
“A criminal prosecution isn’t the forum in which to send a message,” Chisholm said. “Is there a legitimate issue in terms of police-community relations? No question about it. And nothing exacerbates it more than police-related shootings. But in an individual case I have an ethical obligation to just look at those facts and … not to consider extraneous things like public sentiment. I believe strongly we’ve done a thorough job examining all the facts.”
According to the criminal complaint, Heaggan-Brown stopped Smith’s vehicle on Aug. 13. Smith fled on foot between nearby houses with a gun in his hand. Heaggan-Brown and his partner’s body cameras showed Smith fall to the ground, get up and raise his gun while facing Heaggan-Brown, the complaint said. Heaggan-Brown fired and hit Smith in the arm. The video shows Smith then threw his gun over a fence, although Heaggan-Brown told state agents he thought the gun flew out of Smith’s hand, the complaint said.
Heaggan-Brown then fired a second shot into Smith’s chest. Both shots were fired in less than two seconds.
Heaggan-Brown said he thought Smith was reaching for another weapon in his waistband so he fired the second time. The video, however, shows Smith reaching for his waistband after the second shot and that he was unarmed at that time, according to the complaint. Chisholm has refused to release the video, saying the footage is evidence.
The shooting sparked two nights of riots on Milwaukee’s predominantly black north side. Six businesses were burned along with a squad car. One man was shot but survived his wound. About 40 people in all were arrested in the three nights following Smith’s death.
Heaggan-Brown sat silently during his brief court appearance on Dec. 16. Wearing shackles and a yellow anti-suicide smock, he spoke only to say “yes” when court Commissioner Grace Flynn asked if he understood he would have to give a DNA sample.
The commissioner granted Chisholm’s request for $100,000 cash bail, calling the reckless homicide charge serious. Heaggan-Brown’s attorneys, Steven Kohn and Jonathan Smith, didn’t object.
Smith’s cousin, Thaddeus Ashford, told reporters after the proceeding that he didn’t think Heaggan-Brown deserved any bail and that the 60-year maximum sentence for reckless homicide is too light. He accused authorities of showing Heaggan-Brown favoritism, adding that he hates Heaggan-Brown and the entire state of Wisconsin.
“He can do 60 years and still have his life in prison … our cousin is still going to be buried,” Ashford said.
Kohn and Smith said outside court that they’re worried about Heaggan-Brown getting a fair trial given publicity surrounding the case. Smith said he planned to monitor comments on social media for potential evidence to support moving the trial out of Milwaukee County. Kohn added he didn’t think the body camera video should be released ahead of the trial.
The case that led to Heaggan-Brown’s firing stemmed from an incident the night of Aug. 14. According to a criminal complaint, Heaggan-Brown and another man went to a bar where they drank and watched television coverage of the unrest. The man told investigators that Heaggan-Brown bragged that he could do anything he wanted without repercussions. The man said he later woke up to find Heaggan-Brown sexually assaulting him.
Heaggan-Brown also was charged with soliciting two other people for sex several times since December 2015 and with sexually assaulting another unconscious person in July 2016 and photographing that victim naked.
His bail has been set at $100,000 cash in that case as well.