By Gina Barton, Mary Spicuzza and Rory Linnane, The Milwakee Journal Sentinel
The Kenosha police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in August will not be criminally charged, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley announced Tuesday.
The officer who fired the shots, Rusten Sheskey, could successfully argue self-defense before a jury because Blake had a knife, Graveley said during a Tuesday news conference. He also considered 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 four times in the back and three in the side, according to Graveley, 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’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.”
Blake admitted he had a knife, according to the prosecutor.
“All the discussion that he was unarmed contradicts what he himself has said to investigators,” Graveley said.
He added that the shooting was a tragedy for Blake, his family, police and the community — a statement that was little consolation to the Blakes.
“Rocks and glass, that’s what we received today,” Blake’s uncle, Justin Blake, said of the announcement.
Jacob Blake’s attorneys said Graveley’s failure to charge Sheskey was subverting the will of the people.
“We believe all of the elements of attempted homicide were met and we believe the city and community is being deprived of their constitutional right to be the trier of fact,” attorney B’Ivory LaMarr said. “In 2021, it shows one very important thing, and that is that there are three justice systems in America: There’s one for Black and brown people, one for police officers, and one for the rest of the America. And we won’t stop until there is truly one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Sheskey’s attorney, Brendan Matthews, said the officer “was presented with a difficult and dangerous situation and he acted appropriately and in accordance with his training.”
He added: “The video remains difficult to view but that does not change what actually occurred. False and misleading narratives to the contrary need to stop. Kenosha can and will move forward from this. That process begins now.”
Graveley also did not charge the two other Kenosha officers who were present when Blake was shot, Brittany Meronek and Vincent Arenas. The prosecutor would not answer a question about the current employment status of the three officers, saying he “didn’t have anything to do with that.”
Blake’s shooting and its aftermath propelled Wisconsin into the national spotlight. Both 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, then 17, has been charged with killing them and with wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, of West Allis.
In addition to the homicide and attempted homicide charges, Rittenhouse faces two counts of endangering safety and one of 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 $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.”
“There are many legal avenues that should be explored, exhausted and used to make sure that Sheskey and anyone else involved is held accountable,” she said.
New details about the day of the shooting
In opting not to charge Sheskey, Graveley said he relied both on an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and on an outside assessment of that investigation, conducted by former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray.
Wray served as a federal police reform specialist during the Obama administration after his retirement in 2013.
During a two-hour news conference, Graveley and Wray 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, they 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. When they arrived, a struggle ensued. Officers tased Blake twice and he pulled the prongs out of his body, Wray said. They tased him a third time by placing the weapon directly on his body, known as a “dry stun.” That also was ineffective.
At one point, Blake pulled a knife from his waistband, Graveley said. He dropped the weapon during the struggle, but then picked it up and started to walk away, according to Wray. Officers, who were tired and felt they might be losing the fight, temporarily disengaged, keeping distance as they drew their weapons, Wray said.
That changed when Blake tried to get into the vehicle, according to Graveley. Sheskey told investigators he grabbed Blake’s shirt in an attempt to prevent him from stealing the car and possibly kidnapping the children inside, according to Graveley.
At that point, Sheskey had no choice but to re-engage, in Wray’s opinion.
“Officers could not let him leave with a child in the car,” Wray said. “This is the stuff Amber alerts are made of.”
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.
“I ain’t gonna pull no knife on no damn cop,” Blake told investigators. “That’s just stupid.”
His attorney also disputed the authorities’ version of events.
“We maintain Jacob was essentially brutalized well before the video even started. What you saw was Jacob getting up after being almost attacked by these officers well before the video starts,” LaMarr said. “He didn’t have the fortitude to harm anyone. For an officer to say he thought he was going to get stabbed — where? Show me in the video, where did you feel like you were going to get stabbed?
“If officers can justify shooting someone seven times in this circumstance, we have a lot of work to do. And it is dangerous, not only for Black and brown people, but us all.”
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 Kenosha County Courthouse. Monday evening, the Kenosha City Council approved an emergency declaration that included road closures and authorized a citywide curfew.
And although Graveley’s news conference was announced to the media Tuesday morning, he kept its location — The Brat Stop restaurant — secret until 45 minutes before it began.
Blake’s family has no plans to stop protesting.
“This is bigger and greater than Little Jake. This is about all the Little Jakes,” his uncle said Tuesday. “And that’s why people keep coming out and supporting us. You know why? Because it could have been them.”
Blake is now home after months of hospitalization and rehab, LaMarr 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 Aug. 23. Under the deal, 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 three things.
An individual has:
• The ability to cause death or great bodily harm.
• The opportunity to cause death or great bodily harm.
• Put the officer or someone else in jeopardy or 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.
At the end of Tuesday’s news conference, Graveley said it is “a must” for Kenosha police to be equipped with body cameras going forward. The fact that the officers on the scene of Blake’s shooting did not have them has made the case more difficult, he said.
“Every law enforcement officer in Kenosha County should have body cameras, and many of us have been saying that for years,” Graveley said.
Contact Gina Barton at (414) 224-2125 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @writerbarton.
This article originally appeared in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.