No civil rights charges in Wis. squad car death

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A federal investigation into the death of a Milwaukee man who was seen in squad car video gasping for breath and pleading for help is closed and no civil rights charges will be filed, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Robbery suspect Derek Williams, 22, died in July 2011 after running about a block and a half. The initial autopsy found he died of sickle cell crisis — he had the genetic marker for sickle cell but not the disease itself — and his death was natural. The medical examiner’s office later reclassified it as a homicide following an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Witnesses testified during a February inquest that they heard him say he couldn’t breathe as he was arrested and placed in the back of a squad car. A video obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed him struggling to breathe and begging for help for nearly eight minutes. Police eventually performed CPR and called paramedics.

U.S. Attorney James Santelle and Teresa Carlson, the special agent in charge of the FBI in Wisconsin, called a 12 p.m. news conference to discuss the case.

The Justice Department said in a statement that FBI agents who looked into the case found no medical evidence to support reports that police used excessive force with Williams or knowingly ignored his apparent medical distress. It said the squad car video does not show the scene from the officers’ perspective and there’s no evidence that officers were watching Williams on the video monitor or for the entire time.

“Although Mr. Williams made repeated statements to officers that he could not breathe, the officers observed him to be breathing,” the statement said. “Based on both officer and civilian witness testimony, the lack of more significant physical signs of asphyxiation diminished the officers’ beliefs that Mr. Williams was in any distress. Furthermore, the officers responded with medical treatment once it was obvious to them that Mr. Williams needed help.”

The department also said that the cause of Williams’ death remains unclear. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm sought an inquest after the medical examiner’s office reclassified the case as a homicide. In forensic terms, homicide means “death at the hands of another” but does not necessarily mean a crime was committed. The inquest jury determined in February that there was probable cause that Williams died of sickle cell crisis, but it also recommended misdemeanor charges against three of the police officers involved.

Special prosecutor John Franke later said he wouldn’t pursue the matter because he believed there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the officers’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

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.

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