MILWAUKEE (AP) — A special prosecutor on Friday declined to charge three Milwaukee police officers in whose custody a suspect died in 2011, saying there wasn't enough evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Derek Williams, 22, died after gasping for air in the back of a squad car in July 2011. He pleaded with the officers to roll down a window and call an ambulance but one unidentified officer responded, "Nope, you're talking to me, you're just playing games," according to a transcript of the squad-car video.
Last month an inquest jury found probable cause to support charges against the three officers of failure to render aid. But special prosecutor John Franke said he could only have brought criminal charges if he were confident he could meet the higher standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Specifically, he would have had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers believed medical attention was needed and that they knew the failure to obtain aid was causing bodily harm, he wrote in a 33-page report released Friday.
"The evidence is clearly insufficient to satisfy that burden of proof as to any one of these three officers," Franke said.
He did not immediately return a message left Friday by The Associated Press.
The officers — Jason Bleichwehl, Jeffrey Cline and Richard Ticcioni — declined to testify during the inquest, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Other officers testified that they thought Williams was faking.
The lawyers for Bleichwehl and Ticcioni did not immediately return messages Friday. Cline's attorney, Bridget Boyle, said her client was upset about Williams's death but not criminally liable.
"Milwaukee police officers are not taught how to identify who has sickle-cell trait or how to assess people for sickle-cell trait," she said. "This is an unfortunate, unfortunate circumstance but I think the right decision was made by Franke."
The medical examiner's office initially ruled Williams' death natural. But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel later obtained the squad-car video — which shows Williams pleading for help from the back seat for nearly eight minutes and growing progressively weaker until he collapses on his side — the medical examiner's office changed the manner of death to homicide.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who initially concluded that police had done nothing wrong, asked Franke, a private attorney, to serve as the special prosecutor.
In his closing statement to the inquest jury, 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 saying he couldn't breathe as he was arrested and taken to the squad car. On the other hand, the officers eventually performed CPR and called paramedics, Franke said.
Franke earlier decided against asking the inquest jury to consider felony charges against the officers because of the complexity of the medical evidence and lingering uncertainty about why Williams died.
The inquest jury found probable cause that Williams — who had a genetic marker for sickle cell but not the disease itself — died of sickle-cell crisis.
Williams 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. Nothing in the jail records indicated any medical problem, and family members who'd had regular contact with Williams prior to his death didn't see or hear anything that suggested any medical issues, Franke's report said.
The officers could still face federal criminal charges. The U.S. Attorney's office in Milwaukee has not ruled out charging the three officers, and the U.S. Department of Justice is considering whether to sue the Milwaukee Police Department over a possible pattern of civil rights abuses.
"A decision has not been made," U.S. Attorney James Santelle said. "I can tell you there's nothing imminent right now."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.