Dan Hinkel, Stacy St. Clair, John Keilman and Genevieve Bookwalter
CHICAGO — The police officer who shot Jacob Blake won’t face criminal charges for firing seven bullets into the former Illinois man during a struggle in August, prosecutors in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, announced Tuesday.
Relying upon arguments that have long protected officers in on-duty shootings, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley said he would not be able to disprove Officer Rusten Sheskey’s self-defense claims.
As in most states, Wisconsin law holds that officers can shoot if they reasonably believe firing is necessary to protect themselves or anyone else from serious injury. Graveley repeatedly returned to officers’ allegation that Blake menaced them with a knife, which Blake has denied.
“I do not believe the state could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Sheskey was not acting lawfully in self-defense or defense of others which is the legal standard the State would have to meet to obtain a criminal conviction in this case,” Graveley said in his report.
The announcement comes more than four months after a video of the shooting sparked peaceful protests and violent demonstrations that ended with two people dead, Antioch, Illinois, teenager Kyle Rittenhouse facing a murder charge and parts of the southeastern Wisconsin city in ruins.
The recording, viewed around the world as the U.S. was still reeling from the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, shows Sheskey, who is white, shooting Blake, who is Black, in front of his children.
Blake, 29, is now paralyzed from the waist down and lives in chronic pain.
The announcement that charges won’t be filed drew immediate criticism from numerous civil rights organizations and Blake’s family, who learned of the decision shortly before Graveley’s news conference. His father, Jacob Blake Sr., said he will push Congress to pass national police reforms that hold officers accountable for shooting citizens.
“We must abolish the right for a policeman to be seen on a higher plane than citizens of the United States,” Jacob Blake Sr. said. “We can’t have a Bill of Rights for the police and a Bill of Rights for the people. We’re all people. We’re all the same people. … Our fight is not over.”
The FBI opened a civil rights investigation immediately after the shooting, and it remains open, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin is also investigating arson, rioting and other violent crimes that occurred in Kenosha in the days following.
During a two-hour news conference that at times sounded like a defense team’s closing argument, prosecutor Graveley walked reporters through an 87-page investigative report and explained how he thought Sheskey could mount a successful self-defense claim. He rarely, however, discussed how prosecutors could have presented such information if they tried the case.
The prosecutor said the defense argument would rely heavily upon the fact that Blake had a knife. Graveley showed an enhanced image from the video showing Blake holding an object moments before the shooting and said Blake acknowledged to investigators that he had a “razor blade-type knife” in his hand before he was shot.
“It is absolutely incontrovertible that Jacob Blake was armed with a knife during this encounter,” Graveley said. “All the discussion that he’s unarmed contradicts even what he himself has said multiple times to investigators.”
Graveley contended Blake lied to investigators, and described Blake as a suspected domestic abuser and a man who had an arrest warrant for sexual assault. Blake also was arrested in 2010 by Cook County sheriff’s police in Des Plaines, where he was accused of pulling a knife on an officer during a traffic stop, according to Graveley and a police report.
“He would be subject to absolutely devastating cross-examination,” said Graveley, who did not mention that a Cook County judge later dismissed the 2010 charges. “That would be the jury trial that would occur if Officer Sheskey was charged.”
At the start of his announcement, Graveley noted the pain Blake suffered from the shooting. The veteran prosecutor, who is white, also acknowledged he doesn’t know what it’s like to be targeted by police because of his skin color and said he worried about his own unconscious biases playing a role in the decision.
He emphasized that he relied heavily upon an outside analysis performed by former Madison police Chief Noble Wray, who is Black. Wray was hired by the Wisconsin Department of Justice to conduct an outside review of the evidence.
Wray’s findings largely mirrored the prosecutor’s position that Blake created a dangerous situation that prompted Sheskey to react. The former chief said he was initially bothered when he saw the video in the days after the shooting, but that his ultimate obligation was to the facts.
“The criminal justice system is a difficult system. It is hard. It is harsh. It is difficult. It has a history of racism on top of racism, and we are trying to work through this,” he said. “But we cannot work through this by just trying to find a decision that is comfortable with people.”
Graveley said the confrontation started as a “domestic abuse scenario” involving the mother of Blake’s children, who did not cooperate with the shooting investigation. Graveley played a recording of the woman — who the Chicago Tribune is not naming because authorities have said she is a victim of sexual violence ― calling 911 to complain that Blake had the keys to a rental car, and she was worried he’d take it and crash it.
Sheskey said when he arrived on the scene, he saw Blake putting a child in the vehicle. The officers told investigators that Blake said, “I’m taking the kid and I am taking the car,” according to the prosecutor.
“This may seem like a footnote, but it is actually urgently important,” Graveley said. “Unlike many other types of calls, when police are responding to domestic violence calls they must be ready to enter a scene that is unpredictable and combustible.
Sheskey tried to take Blake into custody, but he shook him off. Officers then tried to stun Blake with Tasers three times, but the shocks did not stop him, officials said.
In footage shared widely online, Blake walks from the sidewalk around the front of an SUV to the driver’s side door as officers follow him with their guns pointed. As Blake opens the door and leans into the SUV, Sheskey grabs his shirt from behind and opens fire while Blake has his back turned. Three of Blake’s children were in the vehicle.
Graveley’s report said Sheskey believed Blake might take off in the vehicle or hurt one of the kids so he followed him with his gun drawn as Blake tried to enter the car.
Graveley said Blake grabbed the driver’s side door and pulled it open as Sheskey grabbed Blake’s tank top. The video shows Blake pulling away from Sheskey. Officer Vincent Arenas and Sheskey told investigators that Blake twisted his body toward Sheskey with the knife in his hand, Graveley said.
Blake’s statements to investigators clashed with the narrative Graveley offered.
Blake said he did not understand why the officers were grabbing at him and he wanted to get to the vehicle to drop the knife so the officers would not have a reason to shoot him, according to Graveley’s report. Blake denied that he brandished or pointed it, the report states.
He told investigators he thought, “They are trying to kill me and I need to get in my car,” the report states.
Graveley said the officers were aware that Blake had an arrest warrant for a prior charge of third-degree sexual assault and other counts. Prosecutors dropped the sexual assault charge in November, and Blake pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct, court records show. A judge sentenced him to two years’ probation.
Blake will not face any charges in connection with the shooting.
Blake’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, released a statement blasting Graveley’s decision, saying it further erodes trust in the legal system and tells law-enforcement officials that they can continue to shoot Black men with impunity.
“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,” Crump said.
Crump, a well-known civil rights attorney, also represents the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both of whom were killed by white police officers. He said Blake will “push forward” with a civil rights lawsuit against the Kenosha Police Department.
Prosecutors made the long-awaited announcement at a banquet hall inside Brat Stop, a Kenosha restaurant off Interstate 94 that’s a popular place for Chicagoans to buy bratwurst, local beer and cheese. The unusual location had been kept a closely guarded secret until an hour before the news conference, a reflection of the amped-up security measures undertaken amid concerns of unrest sparked by the decision.
On Monday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers mobilized 500 National Guard members to help keep the peace, while workers installed temporary fencing around government buildings downtown. The county sheriff, whose department has been accused of mishandling the protests following Blake’s shooting in August, declared a state of emergency ahead of the announcement.
Officials clearly feared a repeat of the past summer’s protests, which gave way to violent demonstrations and deadly acts of vigilantism. On the second night, Rittenhouse, a teenager from suburban Chicago who had volunteered to protect a local business from vandalism, fatally shot protesters Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, who prosecutors have said was armed with a handgun.
Video from the scene of the protests showed Rittenhouse apparently trying to surrender to police after the shootings, but they did not arrest him. The image of officers ignoring a rifle-wielding Rittenhouse, who is white, as he walked toward them stood in sharp contrast to those showing Sheskey firing seven bullets into Blake just days earlier.
Graveley’s office has charged Rittenhouse with multiple counts, including reckless and intentional homicide, endangerment and being a minor in possession of a firearm. Rittenhouse, who contends he fired in self-defense, pleaded not guilty to all criminal charges Tuesday.
Before Rittenhouse opened fire and made international headlines, national attention had been focused on Blake’s shooting and the demonstrations that came at the end of a summer of protests around the country kicked off by Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Blake’s shooting prompted the Milwaukee Bucks to sit out a playoff game, giving way to the NBA canceling games for the day.
In the initial hours following Tuesday’s announcement, there were no reports of unrest in the lakefront town, where several blocks still bear the scars of last summer’s chaotic scene.
In the evening, about a few dozen protesters on foot, accompanied by about 20 vehicles, went through an area northwest of downtown, protesting the decision not to prosecute. They honked horns, waved Black Lives Matter flags and shouted slogans, such as “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”
As Gravely delivered his remarks, Blake’s uncle Justin Blake, one of Blake’s lawyers and several local activists gave a news conference of their own a few miles away near downtown Kenosha. They condemned Gravely’s decision, saying the evidence showed the shooting was unjustified.
“I think the video is very clear that Jacob never posed an imminent harm to anyone,” attorney B’Ivory Lamarr said. “There was never a knife extended. He never raised a knife. … And it’s also important to (note) that it’s not against the law to have a knife.”
Justin Blake called for political changes from the local to the national level, saying his nephew’s shooting was a continuation of America’s history of racial oppression. And as National Guardsmen patrolled outside the nearby Kenosha public safety complex, the center of last summer’s unrest, he promised more demonstrations would come.
“We’re encouraging the whole nation and the world to stand up and have a nonviolent civil uprising,” he said. “We’ll be in the streets soon, and we’ll let y’all know about it.”
(Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner and Gregory Pratt contributed to this report.)
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