What Happens in a Public Inquest into a Homicide By a Medical Examiner?

An inquest has been ordered in the death of Derek Williams after the medical examiner ruled his death while in Milwaukee police custody was a homicide. But, as this Journal Sentinel report reveals, inquests are rarely productive and wrought with problems. So, is the inquest just a symbolic effort to save face?

The case of Derek Williams marks the first inquest ordered by District Attorney John Chisolm, since he took office in 2007. This is a marked difference from his predecessor. E. Michael McCann, who ordered inquests into police deaths anytime a family requested them. Unlike Chisolm, he saw them as a way to share facts about a case and come up with ideas that could make positive changes to police policy. Chisolm seems to see them as an admittance of police failure.

In July 2011, when Chisolm was first given the case file of Derek Williams, he determined there was no need for an inquest. He met with Williams’ family, showed them the video of his death, and explained why he thought the police officers acted professionally. They asked for an inquest. He denied it.

Now, after the medical examiner has revisited the case and ruled it a homicide, he has had a change of heart. “There was a change in the medical finding and there need to be public scrutiny of the entire process, and I do not have a problem with that,” he said.

Both the city’s police department and the civilian Fire and Police Commission have reopened their investigations as well, after previously finding no fault with the officers involved.

So, what happens at an inquest?

The inquest involves a jury of citizens who are presented arguments from the prosecutor. That is the only attorney allowed in. While criminal trials are adversarial in nature, with two attorneys arguing sides, the inquest is very one-sided.

The jury doesn’t hear from the family or other attorneys and there is no cross-examination. Witnesses are only called by the prosecutor and only the prosecutor prevents any evidence. In other words—it’s a one-man-show.

Because the prosecutor is considered law-enforcement’s top dog, there is little question whose side they are usually on. They work closely with police and in order to keep that relationship amicable, some argue, the prosecutor won’t step too far out to call police practices into question.

At least in the William’s inquest there will be a special prosecutor. Former judge and U.S. attorneys John Franke has been named special prosecutor. The decision to levy any state criminal charges will ultimately come from him or the state Department of Justice. Federal charges could be filed, but those will come from U.S. Attorney James Santelle. Some have called on Santelle to open a larger-scale civil rights investigation into the entire Milwaukee police department.

What will come of the inquest remains to be seen. But many doubt that it will serve as anything more than a temporary and symbolic pacifier to those who are outraged at Williams’ death.

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About David Matson