Brief

Republican bill to end John Doe proceedings passes Senate committee

By: - February 5, 2024 5:00 am
The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

A proposed Republican bill designed to prevent families of people killed by police from having their cases reviewed under the state’s John Doe statute has moved forward in the state Senate. The bill (SB-517), if signed into law, would prevent “John Doe” cases in which a judge can review police shootings that had previously been ruled acts of self-defense, in order to determine whether probable cause for a crime exists. In such cases, under current law, special prosecutors may be appointed by a judge, who then decides if charges will be pursued. The bill would require new evidence in a given case to be presented before a John Doe proceeding could be considered.

On Wednesday, the Senate’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety recommended the bill for passage in a 4-3 vote. Committee members including Senators Van Wanggaard (R- Racine), Andre Jacque (R- Du Piere), Daniel Knodle (R-Germantown), and Jesse James (R- Altoona) voted in favor of the bill. Like James, Wanggaard – who chairs the committee – is a former law enforcement officer and an author of the bill. Voting against the bill were Senators Kelda Roys (D-Madison), LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), and Eric Wimberger (R- Green Bay). The bill would still need to go to the floor before it makes it to the desk of Gov. Tony Evers to be signed into law or vetoed.

Thus far, no Democratic lawmakers have signed on to support the bill. During a committee hearing on Jan 11, Republican lawmakers and law enforcement supporters of the bill said it is needed to protect police officers from harassment through the court system. Sen. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) and Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonee), testified before the committee that cases like the controversy surrounding the three fatal shootings committed by former Wauwatosa officer Joseph Mensah are ways in which the John Doe law is being “abused” by vengeful, agenda-driven families, activists, and lawyers.

Mensah was involved in three fatal shootings over his five year career at the Wauwatosa Police Department (WPD). Those included 29-year-old Antonio Gonzales in 2015, 25-year-old Jay Anderson Jr. in 2016, and 17-year-old Alvin Cole in 2020. Each of Mensah’s shootings was ruled either justified or privileged under law by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office. Mensah said he feared for his safety in each case and acted in defense of himself or others. Mensah’s shootings, as well as the behavior and reputation of WPD as a whole, spurred over a year of protest in Wauwatosa after the killing of Geroge Floyd in 2020. After resigning from WPD in 2020, Mensah was hired as a deputy at the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department, where he later became a detective.

Reviews of Wauwatosa police actions were also conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as well as internally within the department. Anderson’s case was the only one reviewed under the John Doe statute, a legal move which had been virtually unheard of at the time. After weeks of proceedings in 2021, a circuit court judge found that probable cause of a crime did exist in Anderson’s case. Special prosecutors appointed to take the case on, however, declined to pursue the charges against Mensah.

During the Jan. 11 hearing, Senate committee members suggested that evidence could even be “fabricated” to bring a court case, or to simply keep discussion of an incident in the news cycle. Other supporters of the bill said that Mensah had been repeatedly cleared of wrongdoing, and that accusations against him were baseless. Hutton declined to speak to the Wisconsin Examiner after the hearing. Moses admitted he had not closely followed news coverage of the shootings and investigations. Opponents of the bill, among them lawyers and criminal justice advocates say the bill takes  a hammer to a non-existent problem. John Doe cases are rare generally, particularly against police officers. The bill takes away power from circuit court judges and gives weight to a district attorney’s final decision on a case. Now that it has passed committee, the bill is available for scheduling for a vote.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.

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