MILWAUKEE — Jurors were selected Monday in the case of a 76-year-old white man charged with gunning down a 13-year-old black boy last year on a Milwaukee sidewalk over a theft allegation.
The proceedings come two days after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., last year. In the Milwaukee shooting, which has been compared to the Florida case, John Henry Spooner is charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the May 2012 death of his next-door neighbor, Darius Simmons.
Spooner suspected Simmons of breaking into his Milwaukee home and stealing guns, prosecutors said. Spooner confronted the teen on the sidewalk two days after the weapons came up missing and demanded that he return them. When Simmons denied stealing anything, Spooner shot him in the chest from five feet away as the teen's mother watched, according to the criminal complaint.
Spooner then fired a second shot as Simmons tried to run away, the complaint said. Police recovered a weapon and two spent bullet casings.
An autopsy found that Simmons, who was unarmed, suffered a gunshot wound to his torso. The bullet exited his back.
Witnesses said Spooner paced up and down the sidewalk after the shooting until police arrived. They arrested him without incident.
Spooner's defense attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, conceded that Spooner shot Simmons but said he would argue that he didn't intend to kill the boy. Gimbel also said he had an expert who would testify that Spooner had a mental illness at the time of shooting that prevented him from knowing right from wrong.
The morning of the shooting, Spooner and Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan ate breakfast together. Donovan said Spooner told him he had lost $3,000 worth of shotguns in a burglary that week and was frustrated with police. He also told Donovan that he was dying of lung cancer, Donovan said.
Although the case has been compared to the shooting of the Florida teen, Gimbel said the only similarity was that the victims were both black teens. The attorney said he doesn't think the case in Florida or Saturday's acquittal of Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, on a second-degree murder charge should have any relevance in Spooner's trial.
"I am concerned to the extent that the jury blends in the details of what that outcome might have been," Gimbel said. "Otherwise it should have no bearing."
Judge Jeffrey Wagner asked those in the jury pool whether they could separate the two cases.
"You understand the facts aren't the same. It's a whole different case," he said, as the prospective jurors nodded.
The overall pool of prospective jurors contained four black people, but the defense removed three of them while whittling the panel down to the 14 selected jurors.
Prosecutor Mark Williams told the judge he wasn't pleased about having just one black remaining. He said he wanted to take up the issue Tuesday morning before opening statements.
Two of the jurors, chosen at random, will be dismissed at the end of the trial. The other 12 will deliberate the case.
Florida has a stand-your-ground law, which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. Wisconsin does not, but it does have a so-called castle doctrine. That law creates a presumption of legal immunity for someone who kills or injures a person breaking into his or her home, vehicle or workplace. The measure requires a judge to presume that the use of deadly force was necessary.
But that isn't likely to be relevant in the Milwaukee shooting since it happened outside.
The shooting of Simmons drew swift response from the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which called for federal hate-crimes charges against Spooner. The group also was upset about the way police treated Simmons' family during the shooting investigation.
Police had forced the teen's grieving mother, Patricia Larry, 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 searched the mother's home for the allegedly stolen firearms, which were not found, and they arrested another one of her sons on a year-old truancy violation.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn defended his officers' actions, saying investigators only get one chance to collect evidence and interview witnesses at the scene. He said that means keeping witnesses apart to prevent them from talking, even family members who are mourning and want to be together.
In this case, Simmons' mother was a primary witness, Flynn said. "I wish it had been the mailman," the chief said. "But it wasn't. It was the mom."
The mother has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Spooner.
After Zimmerman's acquittal over the weekend in Florida, more than 100 people rallied Sunday night in Milwaukee. They marched, carried signs and spoke about injustice.