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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz

Inquest for Derek Williams begins this week at the County Courthouse.

Derek Williams inquest jurors ready to decide


Let's be honest.

When presented with the opportunity, there are lots of us who would attempt to get out of jury duty.

In some cases, it's even expected.

But when the duty involves serving on an inquest jury for one of Milwaukee's most sensational police abuse cases, there might be an added incentive for some to try to avoid that dubious "honor."

In a fourth floor courtroom in the Milwaukee County Courthouse, a group of 32 prospective jurors were convened Monday for the chance to consider the death of Derek Williams, the 22-year-old man who died in police custody in June 2011 after being arrested for suspicion of robbery.

By the end of the day, seven jurors were selected; five woman and two men. In a case that will likely have some racial dynamics, it's significant to note the jury consists of five whites, two African-American and two Hispanic.

Security was tight, and the courtroom was packed Monday with observers and supporters of the Williams family, including his mother.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Kevin Martens told the initial group that if they were selected, it would require their time for the rest of this week and probably into next week, too. Special Prosecutor John Franke will be the one presenting the case to the jurors, who will deliver an advisory verdict.

The Milwaukee County district attorney will ultimately decide.

Earlier, the jurors had to answer some important questions from both Martens and Franke before the final cut was made.

Many of the prospective jurors said they had seen or heard about Williams' death in various news reports, with some indicating strong opinions on the case while others promised not to be swayed by anything other than facts.

They were asked pointed questions about whether they held any prejudice or bias against Milwaukee cops, Milwaukee County district attorney's office or law enforcement in general. Questions about whether jurors knew anybody involved in the case, or had any involvement with any groups that have an interest in the case, even questions whether individual jurors knew each other.

Questions about being able to remain impartial despite any personal opinions or contact with law enforcement.

All of the jurors who spoke were referred to only by number with no names revealed.

One woman admitted she was related to "a Milwaukee County sheriff" and wanted to know if that was a problem.

One man talked about problems getting his wife to regular therapy appointments. Another juror expressed concern about getting time off from his job. One woman mentioned an upcoming trip out of town; after checking the dates with the judge, she realized her schedule was wrong.

"That's OK, I'm good," she decided.

The judge wanted to know if any jurors would have any health or medical problems that could somehow impact on their ability to serve on the inquest jury.

One woman stood to confirm a pretty obvious predicament.

"I'm due in two weeks," said the pregnant woman. "That's my medical condition."

Jurors were told that they would not be sequestered during the inquest and allowed to return to their homes each night but admonished not to read newspapers, listen to radio or watch TV reports of the case.

Some were asked whether they had had anybody try to influence them during the first day and some told the judge about an incident while heading to court where the jurors in the pool entered an elevator overheard someone in the hall saying loudly: "Not guilty!"

The ones who heard it told the judge it wouldn't influence their deliberations.

Martens made it a point to make sure the prospective jurors all knew at some point, the disturbing video of Williams dying would be shown and he wanted to know if they would be up for that.

One woman who said she had watched medical procedures in person told the judge seeing the Williams tape it might be too difficult.

"I'm a mother, I don't know if I could stand watching it."

The final seven jurors have a daunting responsible during this high-profile case.

For months, the Williams case has received widespread publicity and many people have seen the police video of the arrested victim begging for help from seemingly disengaged officers enough times to make up their own minds.

Even though their verdict will only be advisory, it will likely be received differently by different groups depending on the outcome.

Longtime observers of criminal justice in Milwaukee realize most inquests into the behavior of Milwaukee police officers seldom end up issuing any charges at all.

That might be why some would rather pass on the opportunity even though, in the end, someone's got to do it.

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