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Former Milwaukee Officer Found Not Guilty In Sylville Smith Shooting

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A Milwaukee jury has found a former police officer not guilty in the shooting death of a young, black man last summer. After that shooting, there were two days of riots in Milwaukee. The case stands out for a few reasons, mainly this. The officer is also African-American. Marge Pitrof from member station WUWM in Milwaukee is with us now. And Marge, first just remind us what happened.

MARGE PITROF, BYLINE: Well, it had been a violent weekend in Milwaukee last August with about a half dozen shootings when Officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown and a partner tried to pull over the vehicle that Sylville Smith was in. They believed it was involved in drug dealing. Well, Smith took off on foot and ran into nearby yards until he reached a fence where the officer shot him.

MCEVERS: What charges did that officer face?

PITROF: Well, the district attorney charged Heaggan-Brown with first-degree reckless homicide not for the first shot he fired at Smith but for the second one. The body camera the officers were wearing in the video the jurors watched several times showed that the first shot hit Smith in the arm as he was tossing his gun over the fence.

MCEVERS: What argument did his defense attorneys make?

PITROF: Well, first of all, the district attorney, he - when he charged the former officer with first-degree reckless homicide, he said that it wasn't that first shot that was in dispute. It was the second one, that Smith was then lying on the ground unarmed and wounded and defenseless when the officer fired the second shot. And Chisholm said the officer should have known that Smith was no longer a threat.

Now, the defense claimed - and it just put one witness on the stand. It was not the officer but rather a man who helps review police protocol. He told the court that Heaggan-Brown was following officer training in ending a threat and that the former officer could not have known whether Smith had another weapon on him while he was lying on the ground and that it all happened in a split second. The video shows that the officer fired both shots in less than two seconds.

MCEVERS: How is the victim's family reacting today to this verdict?

PITROF: Well, the family and friends of Sylville Smith erupted or, rather, disrupted the court with cries of outrage when the judge read the verdict. And afterwards, Smith's father said there's no justice for his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK SMITH: Why are they supposedly trying to kill us when they're supposed to be trained to protect and serve us. They - we're not animals. Every time they take a shot, it's to kill you. It's to kill you because a dead man can't talk, so he can't explain what really happened.

PITROF: The family's also filing a civil suit against the city. Now, after today's verdict was read, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced that the city is going to provide a strong police presence later today in Sherman Park. That's the neighborhood where the arson fires and the vandalism erupted after Smith's killing in August.

MCEVERS: What's happened to Officer Heaggan-Brown since the shooting?

PITROF: Well, as we've mentioned, he's former Officer Heaggan-Brown. The Milwaukee Police Department fired him a couple months after last August's shooting after he was charged with an unrelated sexual assault.

MCEVERS: Marge Pitrof of WUWM in Milwaukee, thank you so much.

PITROF: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "SMOKE AND MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.