MILWAUKEE – A black man killed by Milwaukee police after fleeing a traffic stop was unarmed and defenseless when an officer shot him "point blank," a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday, while defense attorneys said the officer believed the man still had a gun.
Both sides said police body-camera video of the shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith will be key to their cases. The trial will provide the public the first look at the video. Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm called it the "most essential evidence" jurors will see. Defense attorneys said that same footage will explain why Dominique Heaggan-Brown feared for his life when he shot Smith in the chest on Aug. 13.
Heaggan-Brown, 25, is charged with first-degree reckless homicide for Smith's death, which ignited riots in the predominantly black neighborhood where he was shot. Heaggan-Brown was fired in October after being charged with sexual assault in an unrelated case.
The shooting happened after Heaggan-Brown, who is also black, and two other officers pulled up next to Smith's car, noticing his vehicle parked about a foot from the curb. Smith ran away from the car, holding a gun with Heaggan-Brown in pursuit. At one point Smith slipped and fell, dropping his gun.
What happened over the next few seconds is interpreted differently by prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Chisholm said Smith reached for his gun and was throwing it over the fence when Heaggan-Brown first shot him in the arm. Then, standing over Smith, the officer fired a second, fatal shot into his chest, "in point-blank range."
"Sylville Smith is on the ground, his hands by his head, unarmed with nowhere to go," Chisholm told the jury.
Heaggan-Brown said he thought Smith was reaching for a gun in his waistband when he shot him again. Defense attorney Jonathan Smith said Sylville Smith's hands were moving forward when he was shot.
Both shots were fired in less than two seconds.
"These are literally split-second decisions that Mr. Heaggan-Brown is making," Heaggan-Brown's attorney said. When Heaggan-Brown shot Smith a second time, "he did so fearing for his safety" his attorney said.
Jurors are being sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is expected to last about a week. The jury began with 16 people, including four alternates, but one of them was dismissed before opening statements without a cause given. Four men and 11 women are on the jury now, including three black men and two black women.
Heaggan-Brown faces up to 60 years in prison if convicted. At the time of the shooting, Heaggan-Brown had been an officer for three years — a recruit from the Sherman Park neighborhood where the riots occurred.
Within hours of Smith's shooting, demonstrators flocked to Sherman Park and began throwing rocks, bricks, and bottles at police officers. That night and the next, protesters burned eight businesses and a police car. When it was over, police had arrested about 40 demonstrators and multiple officers were hurt.
The violence mirrored unrest that followed the killings of black men by police in other cities, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
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