MILWAUKEE – The Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer who shot Jacob Blake in August will not be criminally charged, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced Tuesday.
Neither the officer who fired shots, Rusten Sheskey, nor any others will be charged, Graveley said during a Tuesday news conference. Gravely said his decision was based on evidence that could not be seen on cellphone video of the incident, which showed Sheskey shooting Blake, 29, as he got into a vehicle with his children inside.
Blake, who was shot in the back, was left paralyzed. The video, which was widely shared on social media, sparked protests, vandalism and arson.
A jury would be required to examine the evidence from the officer’s point of view, Graveley said. It is “incontrovertible” that Blake was armed with a knife when he was shot, Graveley said. He described it as a “razor blade-type knife” and said Blake admitted possessing it.
“It’s really evidence about the perspective of Officer Sheskey at each moment and what would a reasonable officer do at each moment,” Graveley said. “Almost none of those things are answered in that deeply disturbing video that we’ve all seen . . . Officer Sheskey felt he was about to be stabbed.”
He added that the shooting was a tragedy for Blake, his family, police and the community.
Blake’s attorneys said Graveley’s failure to charge Sheskey was subverting the will of the people.
“Officer Sheskey’s actions sparked outrage and advocacy throughout the country, but the District Attorney’s decision not to charge the officer who shot Jacob in the back multiple times, leaving him paralyzed, further destroys trust in our justice system,” attorney Ben Crump and co-counsels Patrick A. Salvi II and B’Ivory LaMarr said in a statement.
They added: “This sends the wrong message to police officers throughout the country. It says it is OK for police to abuse their power and recklessly shoot their weapon, destroying the life of someone who was trying to protect his children.”
Graveley also did not charge the two other Kenosha officers who were present when Blake was shot, Brittany Meronek and Vincent Arenas.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul echoed Graveley in calling the case a tragedy. In a statement, Kaul called for “reform of our criminal justice system,” which he said has “produced staggering and unacceptable racial disparities.”
““We need policy changes that will reduce the likelihood that officer-involved critical incidents will occur and that will make our criminal justice system fairer and more equitable,” Kaul said in a statement.
Blake’s shooting and its aftermath propelled Wisconsin into the national spotlight. Both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden discussed it during campaign stops in the state. Biden met with Blake’s family and said charges against Sheskey appeared warranted, while Trump praised police and preached law and order.
On Aug. 25, the third night of protests in Kenosha, two men, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, were fatally shot by a teenager armed with an AR-15-style rifle. Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, has been charged with killing them and with wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, 26.
In addition to the homicide and attempted homicide charges, Rittenhouse faces two counts of endangering safety and one for illegal possession of a firearm. A count of violating curfew was added later. His attorney formally entered pleas of not guilty to the original seven charges on his behalf during a court hearing Tuesday.
On the night of the shootings, Rittenhouse was among numerous white males who patrolled the protests with guns although they had no legal authority to do so.
Rittenhouse is free on a $2 million bond. His lawyers say he acted in self-defense.
Attorney Kimberly Motley, who represents Grosskreutz, called the decision not to charge Sheskey “outrageous” and “another tragic reminder of the inequities and the tremendous deference that is unfairly given to officers for unreasonably violent behavior.”
New details about the day of the shooting
During a lengthy news conference, Graveley revealed new details about the day Blake was shot.
At the time, there was an open felony warrant for Blake’s arrest in a past incident of domestic violence, he said. Blake’s girlfriend had allowed him to come to their son’s birthday party even though he wasn’t supposed to be at her house, she said on a 911 call played at the news conference.
The woman called police when Blake threatened to leave in her rented SUV. Officers tased Blake three times, but even after that he was able to get up, Graveley said. At one point, Blake pulled a knife from his waistband and jumped on top of Sheskey, the prosecutor said.
Blake then walked away and tried to get into the vehicle. Sheskey told investigators he grabbed Blake’s shirt in an attempt to prevent him from stealing the vehicle and possibly kidnapping the children inside, according to Graveley. The officer told investigators he didn’t fire his gun until Blake twisted toward him with the knife.
Blake disputed that account, saying he had no intention of stabbing the officer, Graveley said.
Authorities braced for unrest
Authorities and Kenosha residents took precautions in anticipation of Tuesday’s announcement. Gov. Tony Evers called out the National Guard Monday afternoon as business owners boarded up their windows and government workers put up fences and concrete barriers around the courthouse. Monday evening, the Kenosha City Council approved an emergency declaration that included road closures and authorized a citywide curfew.
“The past several months have been extraordinarily challenging for the Kenosha community,” Kaul said in his statement. “We need to work together, peacefully, to ensure that Kenosha—and all of Wisconsin—comes out of this difficult time stronger.”
Although Graveley’s news conference was announced to the media Tuesday morning, he kept its location secret until 45 minutes before it began.
Blake’s family has no plans to stop protesting.
“Police officer Sheskey needs to be fired, indicted and have his day in court,” Jacob Blake’s uncle, Justin Blake, said at a Monday news conference. “The Blake family one day will get justice. … We’re a patient family.”
Blake is now home after months of hospitalization and rehab, his attorney said.
He is serving two years probation after reaching a plea agreement on the charges that resulted in the attempt to arrest him for violating a restraining order on Aug. 23.
Blake had been charged a month earlier with third-degree sexual assault, a felony, and two misdemeanors, trespassing and disorderly conduct, in connection with an altercation at his girlfriend’s home several weeks earlier. Under his deal with prosecutors, Blake pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct involving domestic abuse.
He has no other criminal record and no pending charges.
Officers seldom charged
Police are rarely charged in on-duty shootings. Since 2015, more than half of the murder or manslaughter cases brought against officers nationwide have ended in acquittals or deadlocked juries, according to data collected by Philip Stinson, a criminology professor at Bowling Green State University, and cited in a Washington Post report last year.
Police officers invoke self-defense in shooting cases and they typically have been deemed justified in using deadly force if they reasonably believe that a suspect has the ability to cause death or great bodily harm, or if the suspect could put the officer or someone else in imminent danger;
Even if it later turns out there was no real threat, a self-defense claim could still be viable if a person actually believed he or she was in danger and any “reasonable” person in the same situation would have believed the same thing.
If prosecutors could prove such a belief was not reasonable, they could pursue a homicide charge.
Follow Gina Barton on Twitter at @writerbarton.
Contributing: Mary Spicuzza, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel