Protesters hold a march for Jay Anderson Jr., on the 300th day of protest in the Milwaukee area. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Two special prosecutors have been appointed by Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge Glenn Yamahiro in the John Doe proceedings to determine if former Wauwatosa officer Joseph Mensah should be charged for fatally shooting Jay Anderson Jr. six times in a parked car in 2016. The news came Wednesday morning, more than four months after Yamahiro’s July 28 ruling in a John Doe case that probable cause exists to explore charges of homicide by negligent use of a dangerous weapon against Mensah.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm had ruled the shooting as justified in 2016, but Yamahiro stressed that the case needed new perspectives. “Number one, I want a fresh look at this entire matter,” he said. “And I’ve defined that as having at least one person who is not a career prosecutor review this case.”
Yamahiro also stated that he sought individuals who were established in the Wisconsin legal communities, “and people that I could have confidence in that they were going to take the job seriously, that they were going to let the case lead them. There will be no predetermined decisions, as there never have been in this case.” The judge emphasized that regardless of the special prosecutor’s final decision, “I want the community to have confidence that this was given a proper review. Nothing more than that, and nothing less than that.”
He selected La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke for the special prosecutor role, along with Scott Hansen of the Milwaukee-based law firm Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren. Hansen asked Yamahiro to note that he will be acting independently of the law firm in reviewing this particular case.
“Scott Hansen is a career litigator for that firm,” the judge stated. “He is a person that has enjoyed innumerable successes in litigation, in trials.” In regards to the pair, of lawyers, Yamahiro said, “these are not a couple of guys with big egos. They are people who are focused on the facts, on the law and understanding the total situation. And I’m confident that that’s what they’re going to do in this case.” Gruenke has served as a prosecutor for over 27 years and has received numerous awards and accolades. “He is extremely well regarded in La Crosse County,” said Yamahiro.
Gruenke declined to comment directly on his appointment. He did, however, confirm for the Wisconsin Examiner that his office has charged police officers in the past. “We have charged officers and have referred officers for charges to other counties, but I would be hard pressed to come up with a number of cases over the years,” said Gruenke. “It would not be that many because we haven’t had very many police officers referred for charges, but they have been relatively minor. Some OWI’s [operating while intoxicated], a domestic DC [disorderly conduct] I can remember. We did have an officer that was stealing drugs from evidence we referred to DOJ [the Wisconsin Department of Justice]. That was probably the most serious one.”
Anderson, killed in June 2016, was the second person that Mensah fatally shot over the course of a year at the Wauwatosa Police Department. Mensah told investigators that he fired at Anderson because he lunged for a gun in the front passenger seat. Anderson had been sleeping in his car in a Milwaukee park when Mensah approached his car at nearly 3 am. Anderson’s family and friends say that he’d celebrated his birthday and was sleeping off intoxication rather than continue the drive home. Less than 30 seconds of mute dash footage was captured during that night, showing Anderson was shot while he sat in the car. Mensah was alone and had not activated his dash camera until after the shooting had occurred. Wauwatosa officers were also not equipped with body cameras at the time. Fellow Wauwatosa officers who arrived for backup afterward say they removed the gun Mensah said was beside Anderson without taking pictures for evidence.
Under state law, police agencies can not investigate their own officer-involved shootings. Although Anderson’s case was investigated by the Milwaukee Police Department under the Milwaukee Area Investigative Team, earlier phases of the John Doe hearing showed that Wauwatosa officers had involved themselves in the investigation.
Detectives interviewed witnesses days after the shooting and observed while Anderson’s body was being inspected at the Medical Examiner’s Office. While the case was being reviewed by the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office, Mensah was placed on administrative duty and later was temporarily assigned to administrative light duty in Wauwatosa’s detective bureau in July 2016. He’d also been awarded Wauwatosa PD’s medal of valor for his conduct during his first fatal shooting a year prior of Antonio Gonzales.
In early 2020, Mensah fatally shot a third person, 17-year-old Alvin Cole, as he ran from officers. Officers said Cole fired a handgun at them. Mensah eventually left Wauwatosa PD after pressure from protests calling for his firing. He was then hired by the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department.
During his ruling decision in July, Yamahiro acknowledged the many issues with the Anderson case. “The record of this investigation is replete both with things that were done that should not have been done as well as other things that should have been done, but were not done,” he said. Attorney Kimberley Motley, who’s representing the families of those involved in Mensah’s three fatal shootings, has described the Anderson investigation as “justification, not investigation.”
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Motley told the Wisconsin Examiner after the appointment of the special prosecutors, “I’m cautiously optimistic. I think that with the John Doe hearing, frankly, I wasn’t just trying to prove probable cause. I was trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Joseph Mensah should be criminally charged, and frankly convicted. So we have overwhelming evidence to justify a criminal charge against Joseph Mensah.”
She added: “I’m hoping that the two special prosecutors agree with our assessment.” Nevertheless, Motley cautions, “I don’t want this to be a case of people being appointed and then nothing happening.”
Several aspects of Anderson’s death, and the subsequent actions by law enforcement, raise questions in Motley’s mind. “I just really hope that the investigation is conducted in an open-minded way,” she said. “Any interviews of Joseph Mensah should be video recorded. Keep in mind that for the prior investigation he was only in the building for 48 minutes. It was unrecorded and he gave a conflicting statement compared to his statement the day prior at the scene. So again, I cannot stress enough there is probable cause to charge Joseph Mensah with a crime. Anything less is unjust. Period.”
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