MILWAUKEE (AP) — A special prosecutor on Friday declined to charge three Milwaukee police officers in whose custody a gasping suspect died in 2011, saying there wasn't enough evidence to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Derek Williams, 22, died after struggling to breathe 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 replied, "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 didn't file charges because he wasn't confident he could meet the higher standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Specifically, he would have had to prove the officers believed medical attention was needed and that they knew failure to obtain aid would cause 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 said the officers' failure to act was a "grievous mistake," but that charges would have to reflect criminal intent, not just a failure to do what "should have been done."
Franke declined to comment to The Associated Press beyond what was written in the report.
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 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.
Police Chief Edward Flynn issued a statement saying the officers would soon return to active duty. He said his department is committed to "restoring the trust of those whose confidence was shaken by these events."
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 died of natural causes. 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.
Franke said the squad-car video was filmed using an infrared camera that produces a clearer image than what police would have seen on that dark night, perhaps with glare from their laptops reflecting on the plastic window between the front and back seats.