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 the courtroom as the verdict was read. The shooting death sparked days of unrest in Milwaukee.
Judge Jeffrey Conen had instructed the jury of nine women and three men to consider lesser charges in the reckless homicide trial.
Heaggan-Brown still faces charges in an unrelated sexual assault investigation for which he was fired from the police department.
The prosecutor argued Heaggan-Brown fatally shot Smith as the suspect attempted to surrender. But, the former officer’s attorney countered his client made a split-second decision to protect his life and that of another officer.
The jury began deliberations on Tuesday, less than a year after the shooting in northwest Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.
Heaggan-Brown, 25, faced 60 years in prison.
Body-camera video from another officer – played for the jury last week – showed 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 Tuesday.
“Mr. Heaggan-Brown knew, at the time he fired that second shot, that Sylville Smith had already disarmed himself,” Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm told the jury, WISN-TV reported. “He knew that Sylville Smith was attempting to surrender.”
But, defense attorney Jonathan 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, according to WISN.
Willis testified Heaggan-Brown acted in “accordance with his training,” 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.”
Willis, who wrote the use of force manual used by Milwaukee police officers, told the jury Heaggan-Brown justifiably responded to a “deadly threat,” WISN reported.
Last week, members of Sylville Smith’s family gasped as body camera footage of the August 13 foot chase was played in court.
The reaction to the video, including sobs from Smith’s family, caused the judge to clear the courtroom. The defense attorney called for a mistrial, saying the family’s response could influence the jury, according to WITI-TV. Conen denied the request.
Officer fired over a different investigation
The shooting sparked days of unrest in the Sherman Park section of Milwaukee, a city long torn by racial tensions.
Prosecutors said his first shot was justified but not the second, according to WISN.
Heaggan-Brown’s former partner, Ndiva Malafa, testified last week they were chasing Smith, 23, because they saw he had a gun.
“I saw Mr. Smith exit the vehicle. I observed the firearm and, at that point, we made eye contact. At that moment, I believe I started to – I see him running northeast. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Heaggan-Brown chase him as well,” Malafa testified, WITI reported.
Malafa’s body camera footage was played several times in court, according to WTMJ. Malafa also guided the jury through the footage frame by frame, the station reported.
The video picks up as Malafa jumps out of a squad car. The shaky footage shows him trailing behind Heaggan-Brown, who is chasing Smith. The suspect ran across a lawn, turned a corner and headed toward a fence but slipped before reaching it.
Smith was armed with a Glock .40-caliber Model 22 semi-automatic handgun with an extended magazine containing 23 rounds.
An autopsy showed Smith had a gunshot wound through his upper right arm and another to his right upper chest.
In the body camera audio, which was activated 30 seconds after the shooting, Heaggan-Brown was heard yelling at Smith: “Stop reaching.” He moved Smith’s hand away from his waist, the criminal complaint said.
Heaggan-Brown had previously said he believed Smith “was reaching for his waist so he discharged his weapon a second time.”
In an interview with WITI, Smith’s brother Sedan said: “It’s the longest 30 seconds of my life to be able to just watch the video.”
Heaggan-Brown is the third US law enforcement officer to be tried for a shooting in the last week.
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 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.