MILWAUKEE (AP) - The FBI has launched a federal civil rights investigation into the death of a man who died in Milwaukee police custody, the local special agent in charge said Wednesday.
Derek Williams, 22, died July 6, 2011, when police video shows him struggling to breath in the back of a squad car. Following an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee County medical examiner last month changed the manner of Williams' death from natural to homicide.
District Attorney John Chisholm has emphasized the medical examiner's revised finding doesn't mean a crime was committed. Medical examiners define homicide as "death at the hands of another." The crime of homicide requires prosecutors to prove intent to kill or reckless disregard for life.
Still, Teresa Carlson, Special Agent in Charge of the Milwaukee FBI, said Wednesday that the reclassification of the death warrants an independent investigation.
"We have all seen the video and it's extremely difficult to watch," she said during a news conference. "Our mission however is to fully investigate that night, everything that happened that night and to do so as objectively as possible."
She said she will then turn the evidence over to U.S. Attorney James Santelle to decide if charges are warranted. She said they don't know when their investigation might finish.
Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said in a statement that he has told federal officials the department is open to the investigation and will fully cooperate. The department turned the case files over to the FBI a year ago, he said.
Former Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John Franke also is overseeing a separate state criminal inquest into Williams' death to determine if state criminal charges should be filed.
Robin Shellow, who is representing Derek Williams' mother, Sonya Moore, said in a statement that she was grateful for the investigations.
"It is my hope that the Federal Government will consider whether or not persons in command at the Milwaukee Police Department, the District Attorney's office, and the Medical Examiner's office conspired to obstruct justice through coordinated actions amounting to a cover-up," she said.
Police said Williams fled officers after trying to rob a couple and was sweating profusely when he was caught. According to a police report, a handcuffed Williams repeatedly told officers he couldn't breathe. He first made the complaint as he lay face down on the ground with his hands cuffed behind him and an officer's knee pressed across his back, the report said.
Video shows Williams in the squad car struggling to breathe for nearly eight minutes before losing consciousness. An officer then checked Williams' pulse, propped him up and walked to a supervising officer's car nearby. Finding the supervisor's car empty, the officer returned to Williams and started performing CPR. Another officer called for medical assistance.
Police and paramedics performed CPR for more than 45 minutes before Williams was declared dead.
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