This week in Milwaukee County several Milwaukee police officers have been subpoenaed to testify in an inquest regarding the death of Derek Williams, a young man who died after being arrested for robbery. An inquest is a public hearing not unlike a grand jury or John Doe investigation (which are conducted in secret). The purpose of the inquest is to use the court’s subpoena power to force testimony of potential witnesses to discover the cause of a suspicious death. In the Wiliams inquest, the purpose is to discover whether the police acted inappropriately or even criminally, when they refused to aid Williams who was suffering a sickle cell anemia-related loss of breath.
During the inquest, two officers who were involved in the arrest and detention of Williams “pled the Fifth” meaning they invoked their right to silence as provided by the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution. The obvious question for Milwaukee citizens becomes: Why would a Milwaukee police officer, whose job it is to tell the truth, plead the fifth?
The answer is relatively simple. The inquest may result in the involved officers being charged with some kind of criminal charge. Most likely, the special prosecutor is determining whether the officers might have acted so recklessly (by failing to provide medical aid to Williams) that there is probable cause to believe they may have committed second degree reckless homicide, a class D felony.
Even if the possibility of a charge for reckless homicide is extremely unlikely, the officers, like any person accused or potentially accused of a crime, should take all steps to ensure they do not aid the investigation. Because they were subpoenaed, the officers were compelled to take the stand in the inquiry. However, once on the witness stand, the ability to refuse to testify is a personal right they can invoke. If the special prosecutor in the case wanted to force them to testify, he would have to grant them immunity – that is asking the court to grant an order prohibiting their statements from being used against them in the future.
Secondly, the officers who invoked their Fifth Amendment rights have already made statements regarding the circumstances of Derek Williams’ death. Their attorneys are attempting to keep these statements as unencumbered by other, potentially inconsistent, sworn testimony. The special prosecutor in the case will then only have their original statements to consider when making his determination as to whether to pursue any charges against them.