Wis. police chief defends handling of teen's death

June 13, 2012 - 3:35 PM
Teen Fatally Shot Milwaukee

John H. Spooner appears in court on Monday, June 11, 2012, during a hearing at the Criminal Justice Facility in Milwaukee. Spooner, who is charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the May 31 killing of Darius Simmons, waived his right for a preliminary hearing. He was ordered to stand trial and pleaded not guilty Monday in the fatal shooting of his 13-year-old neighbor. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Rick Wood)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — After a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed in front of his Milwaukee home last month, police forced his grieving mother to sit in a squad car for more than an hour rather than let her hold her dying son or join him at the hospital.

Officers also rifled through her home looking for stolen firearms, and arrested another of her sons on a year-old truancy violation.

The actions might have seemed harsh, Milwaukee police Chief Ed Flynn acknowledged Wednesday, but that's an unfortunate aspect of homicide investigations — the detectives' top priority is to gather facts, and compassion is only a secondary concern.

Prosecutors say the boy, 13-year-old Darius Simmons, was outside his home May 31 when his 75-year-old neighbor confronted him about stolen firearms. When Simmons protested his innocence, John Henry Spooner shot him in the chest as Simmons' mother watched, the criminal complaint said.

Flynn said investigators get only one chance to collect evidence and interview witnesses at the scene. That means keeping witnesses apart to prevent them from talking, even family members who are mourning and want to be together, he said.

In this case, the boy's mother was a primary witness, Flynn said.

"I wish it had been the mailman," Flynn told reporters. "But it wasn't. It was the mom."

Flynn said similar logic applied when officers arrested a son on the truancy violation. Sometimes, witnesses who have outstanding violations leave the scene before police arrive, so by making arrests officers ensure that witnesses won't leave prematurely, he said.

Because Spooner alleged that shotguns had been stolen from his house, police were obligated to search Simmons' home to confirm or deny his claims, Flynn said. He denied criticism that officers had left the home in disarray.

"We didn't rifle through drawers or go through purses," the police chief said. "We only looked in the likely places where they could be."

Spooner pleaded not guilty to first-degree intentional homicide on Monday, two days after Simmons was buried. Spooner's hearings and trial dates will be set at a June 20 scheduling conference.

Flynn had planned to meet with the media to explain why police handled the investigation as they did, but he said he wanted to wait until after Simmons' funeral. He also said he met with family members Tuesday, and that the conversation went well.

Simmons' uncle, Leon Larry, wasn't at the meeting, but told The Associated Press he didn't buy Flynn's explanations. He suspected that police knew they screwed up and were spinning the facts to help cover up their errors.

"None of it makes sense. My sister was treated like she was the suspect," he said. "And searching the house, it looked like they were trying to give the suspect a reason for what he did, an excuse for what he did. That's garbage."

Messages left with other family members were not immediately returned.

The case drew attention from Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a national organization that wants federal hate-crime charges brought against Spooner. Darius was black and Spooner is white.

Flynn said he didn't concern himself with national groups, saying they have national agendas — swooping into cities whenever a local event bolsters their cause and then disappearing. His concern, he said, was maintaining good relations with the local groups who care about the Milwaukee community.

At a news conference two days after the shooting, mourning family members criticized police for their lack of compassion. Betty McCuiston, Simmons' aunt, said police had no justification for keeping a grieving mother away from her dying son.

Flynn said he understood the perception, but added that in six months, when the suspect is on trial, no one will care how much compassion police showed on the day of the crime. The only thing people will care about is a guilty verdict, he said.

"If we do things differently people will say, 'Why didn't they convict that guy?'" he said. "We're truly damned if we do and damned if we don't."

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.