A judge will decide this week whether to charge a former Wisconsin police officer for shooting a man sitting in a parked car, after defense attorneys used a rare legal process to circumvent prosecutors who dropped previous charges.
The Associated Press reports that Joseph Mensah, who has a record of fatal shootings, shot Jay Anderson Jr. after discovering Anderson sleeping in a parked car after hours in a Wauwatosa park. Mensah said Anderson was reaching for a gun.
Mensah had been previously cleared for two other shootings of civilians while he was employed by the Wauwatosa Police Department. He shot and killed Antonio Gonzalez, who identified as Latino and Native American, in 2015, the same year he joined the department. In 2020, he shot and killed Alvin Cole, 17, following a disturbance in a mall, claiming that Cole pointed a gun at him. The shooting and prosecutors’ decision not to charge Mensah for shooting Cole prompted months of protests in Wauwatosa.
Mensah resigned from the Wauwatosa Police Department the next and is now a Waukesha County sheriff’s deputy, the AP says.
Prosecutors, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, had cleared Mensah of shooting Anderson as well. After initial charges against Mensah were dropped, Anderson’s attorneys found an obscure legal option that forces a proceeding against Mensah similar to a grand jury, where a judge hears evidence and decides whether to charge Mensah. A Milwaukee judge could charge Mensah this Friday (June 25).
Anderson’s father, Jay Anderson Sr., called the hearing “a blessing to me and my family.”
Kimberley Motley, an attorney representing the Gonzales, Anderson and Cole families, said she found the rare legal option when researching an option similar to a grand jury called the John Doe option. A section of the John Doe law allows citizens to ask a judge to use the option when a prosecutor declines to file charges. In a John Doe hearing, the citizen or their attorney can question witnesses in front of the judge with no cross-examination. The judge can then decide whether to issue charges, and appoint a special prosecutor to handle the case.
Motley filed a petition for the John Doe hearing in February 2021, claiming that Anderson never touched the gun on his passenger seat. She also argued that no Wauwatosa officer besides Mensah has killed anyone in the line of duty in the last decade, and called the 19 shots Mensah fired in the three shootings “an extraordinary number.”
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn Yamahiro agreed to open an investigation, and heard testimony at five public hearings. Mensah did not testify at a hearing, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Mensah’s attorney, Jon Ceremele, said in February that Mensah acted in self-defense.
According to the AP, citizen-initiated John Does happen once or twice a decade in Wisconsin, and have not been used against police officers in recent history. At least six other states, including Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota, have similar laws that allow citizen-initiated grand juries.
Motley is considering whether to pursue the John Doe process for Cole and Gonzales as well. She said Anderson’s case could serve as precedent for other families to pursue accountability against police officers if prosecutors decline to file charges.