A Milwaukee County jury took about 2 ½ hours Wednesday to find Theodore Edgecomb guilty of first-degree reckless homicide for killing immigration lawyer Jason Cleereman in a 2020 road rage incident.
The verdict came about 30 minutes after the jury asked to rewatch a police surveillance video of the shooting on the Holton Street bridge, something jurors had already seen many times during trial.
Edgecomb faces up to 40 years in prison at his sentencing in April. The charge he was found guilty of was a lesser-included offense under the primary charge, first-degree intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory life in prison sentence upon conviction.
The case drew wide attention late last year when Edgecomb's lawyers said he acted in self-defense and had hired the same expert who testified for Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen acquitted on self-defense in the killing of two people during protests in Kenosha in August 2020. The trial was shown live on CourtTV.
During Edgecomb's testimony Tuesday, however, he surprised the courtroom by saying repeatedly he didn't mean to fire his gun at Cleereman, that the weapon "just went off" as the immigration lawyer angrily approached him and threatened to kill him. Defendants raising self-defense normally say they intended to shoot because they feared imminent death or bodily harm from an assailant.
By trial's end the jury had the option of finding him guilty of homicide by negligent handling of a firearm, which is punishable by a five-year prison term. It became the fifth possible way the jury could find him guilty.
If the jury had believed Edgecomb, 32, acted in lawful self-defense, he would have been acquitted of all five possible homicide counts. If the panel decided he honestly — but unreasonably — believed shooting Cleereman, 54, was necessary to save his life or protect him from serious bodily harm, it would make him guilty of second-degree intentional homicide. That carries a sentence of 25 years in prison.
Until the week before trial, Edgecomb had been charged with first-degree reckless homicide, the count he was ultimately convicted of. Prosecutors then raised the charge to the most serious homicide.
Judge David Borowski initially rejected a defense request that the jury be instructed on negligent homicide, unless he also removed the instruction on self-defense.
Assistant District Attorney Grant Huebner ultimately agreed to the instruction, so the judge gave it.
The jury lost two alternates, one last week for a death in the family, and one during closing arguments who became ill. But the 12 that remained included six people of color, five of whom were African-American, which Borowski noted was one of the most diverse juries he's had recently.
The defense had questioned the makeup of the first panel of 50 potential jurors because it included only three or four people of color. That panel was dismessed for a different reason on the first day of jury selection.
In his closing argument, Huebner said Edgecomb clearly meant to kill Cleereman because he shot him in the head from close range. He said such force was unreasonable against an unarmed man, and self-defense does not apply.
"He started a fistfight, then brought a gun to it," Huebner said.
The shooting occurred moments after Edgecomb punched Cleereman through a car window after Edgecomb said he was struck a few blocks east on Brady Street by the Cleereman's KIA, being driven by the victim's wife. Edgecomb also claimed Cleereman used a racial slur.
In his closing, defense attorney B'Ivory LaMarr returned to the theme police had not fully investigated the case. He questioned why a knife found in Cleereman's pocket hadn't been tested for DNA, why his wife wasn't questioned about taking his wallet from the body before police came, and why not every bystander near the scene was interviewed.
"There are too many questions unanswered. Too many questions never asked," LaMarr said. "That's reasonable doubt."
LaMarr also tried to explain Edgecomb's claim the gun discharged on its own by saying his client didn't intend to kill Cleereman.
"He only intentionally tried to stop a threat," LaMarr said. "The gun was out already. It was used to deter conduct, but it didn't work. He kept coming, and that's why we're here today."
Edgecomb testified that the gun went off when he stepped back from a lunge by Cleereman. Witnesses described him raising the gun at Cleereman. Huebner said the "lunge" was really Cleereman falling forward after he was shot.
A traffic encounter preceded the shooting
Cleereman and his wife, Evangelina, were coming from a tavern on the night of Sept. 22, 2020. She testified she had to swerve when Edgecomb, riding a bike, darted into westbound Brady Street from the sidewalk. He said she actually struck him, and that her husband yelled out to him with a racial slur.
Moments later, Edgecomb rode up behind the Cleeremans as they were stopped for a light at Holton Street. He stopped by the passenger door, asked Cleereman if he had been talking to him, then punched him in the face after Cleereman replied "yes."
Edgecomb claimed Cleereman again used the N-word. The encounter was recorded by a police surveillance camera.
Edgecomb pedaled away, north onto the Holton Street bridge, as the Cleeremans sped after him until Edgecomb jumped his bike to the sidewalk.
Cleereman exited the car and walked quickly toward Edgecomb who had moved to the top of some stairs that descend to Swing Park on Water Street below.
When Cleereman got within about 3 feet, Edgecomb fired a single shot that killed Cleereman.
The entire encounter is also captured on police surveillance video. Police later issued stills of the suspect from surveillance videos and a neighbor identified Edgecomb.
Edgecomb left town and wasn't arrested until about six months later after a traffic stop in Kentucky. The prosecution called Edgecomb's efforts to avoid arrest showed "consciousness of guilt."
LaMarr said his client was afraid of not getting fair treatment as a Black man who had killed a white lawyer, and was planning to turn himself in once he got his own attorney.
On cross examination, Huebner had pointed out that Edgecomb was on bail on two pending cases at the time and had lawyers in each one. Edgecomb said he didn't think they were allowed to help him in a new matter.
As a condition of bail in each case, Edgecomb was not allowed to have a firearm. On the first day of trial, he pleaded guilty to two counts of bail jumping that had been charged with the homicide.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Edgecomb guilty of 1st-degree reckless homicide in Milwaukee shooting