The prosecution argued that Smith was attempting to surrender just moments before his death. “Mr. Heaggan-Brown knew at the time he fired that second shot that Sylville Smith had already disarmed himself,” Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm told the jury, citing footage from another officer’s body camera as evidence. But the defense claimed that Heaggan-Brown was following protocol by using the “one-plus rule,” which says that a suspect with one weapon is likely to have another.
The defense also argued that Heaggan-Brown made the decision to fire a second shot while Smith was still a threat. “When we see the trigger being pulled, we have to not consider that the moment of decision,” said Robert Willis, an expert in police use of force and the defense’s sole witness. “We have to go back several frames … to delve into the decision-making process that goes into firing this shot.” Heaggan-Brown previously told investigators that he saw Smith reaching for his waist before he fired the second shot. Audio footage also reveals that Heaggan-Brown told Smith to “stop reaching.”
While officers are rarely prosecuted—and very rarely convicted—in police shootings, the “not guilty” verdict yielded audible gasps, followed by sobs, from Smith’s family. The Associated Press reports that certain family members left the courtroom shouting and cursing. “I feel like no matter what it is, these police officers all over the world, they can just literally murder you,” Smith’s step-sister, Shannon Daniels, said outside the courthouse. But Smith’s father, Patrick, urged “the community to calm down and come together” in the wake of the verdict. The deceased’s sister, Sherelle, shared a similar message: “Don’t give them a reason to take your life,” she told young people. “Do something different in the community, try as hard as you can to be peaceful.”
In the hours following Smith’s death, around 100 angry protestors took to the streets of Milwaukee, demanding justice. The protests eventually turned violent, resulting in dozens of arrests and a few officers being injured. After two days of escalating tension, Milwaukee’s mayor enforced a 10 p.m. curfew for the city’s teenagers. On the night after the shooting, prosecutors claim that Heaggan-Brown sexually assaulted a man after drinking heavily at a bar. According to prosecutors, the officer “bragged about being able to do whatever” he wanted “without repercussions.” The allegations prompted an internal investigation from the Milwaukee Police Department, which led to Heaggan-Brown being fired. After pleading “not guilty” to charges of sexual assault, Heaggan-Brown awaits a separate trial in August.