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Sylville Smith case verdict: Dominique Heaggan-Brown not guilty

MILWAUKEE -- A former Milwaukee police officer who fatally shot a black man after a foot chase last year has been found not guilty of first-degree reckless homicide.

Jurors began deliberations Tuesday around midday after attorneys delivered closing arguments in a case that poses the question of whether the officer was acting in self-defense or shooting a man who was no longer armed. The verdict was announced Wednesday afternoon.

Sobs and screams broke out in the courtroom after the verdict was read.

The prosecutor who charged Dominique Heaggan-Brown with first-degree reckless homicide in the killing of 23-year-old Sylville Smith told jurors Smith was defenseless and "looked like a child" when he was on the ground the moment Heaggan-Brown shot him in the chest.

But one of Heaggan-Brown's attorneys countered that the former officer was forced to make a split-second decision when confronted with an armed man during a foot chase that followed a traffic stop.

Milwaukee Unrest Analysis 05:27

Smith's death at the hands of Heaggan-Brown on Aug. 13 sparked two nights of rioting in the Sherman Park neighborhood and highlighted the strained relationship between police and African-Americans in the city. But the case is different from recent high-profile police shootings that have inspired a national conversation about how officers interact with African-Americans: Heaggan-Brown and Smith are both black and from the north side of the city where the shooting occurred.

The jury was made up of nine women and three men. Four of the jurors were black and the rest were white.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm told jurors Heaggan-Brown didn't need to use deadly force against Smith, who had thrown away the gun he was carrying. Heaggan-Brown shot Smith on his right bicep as he threw the gun away over a fence. He shot him again 1.69 seconds later, this time in the chest, when Smith fell on his back with his legs in the air.

"He's in the most vulnerable position that he can possibly be in," Chisholm said. "He looks like a child."

Heaggan-Brown, 25, and two other officers had approached Smith's rental car because it was parked more than a foot from the curb, and police believed a drug deal was happening. Heaggan-Brown and two officers were making their way back to their district station when they decided to initiate one last traffic stop. 

Sylville Smith WDJT

Chisholm has said that Heaggan-Brown was justified when he fired the first shot, but argues the second shot was unnecessary.

Jonathan Smith, one of Heaggan-Brown's defense attorneys, told jurors the former officer didn't have the benefit of seeing the events unfold in slow-motion, which is how prosecutors have shown jurors the shooting using still frames from bodycam footage.

"That first shot was a justifiable shot and that justification did not change in 1.69 seconds," Smith said, alluding to the time that transpired before the first and second shot.

During the brief foot chase, Smith slipped and fell after turning into a path between two houses. Heaggan-Brown fired the first shot almost simultaneously with Smith throwing away his gun when he got up.

The fatal encounter transpired over 12 seconds from the time Heaggan-Brown got out of his car to begin chasing Smith to when the fatal shot was fired. 

Heaggan-Brown was fired two months after the shooting when he was charged with sexual assault in an unrelated case.

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