No charges filed against Kenosha officers in Jacob Blake shooting

David K. Li and Doha Madani

The police officers involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake, which touched off days of civil unrest last summer in Wisconsin, will not face any criminal charges, authorities said Tuesday.

Blake, who is Black, was struck by seven bullets at close range Aug. 23 as he walked away from Kenosha police Officer Rusten Sheskey, who had answered a domestic disturbance call.

Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley told reporters that Sheskey and other officers would have had a strong case for self-defense.

"If you don't believe you can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, you have an ethical obligation not to issue charges," Graveley said at a news conference.

Blake's family attorney, Benjamin Crump, said Graveley wrongfully denied the community its chance to try the facts.

"We are immensely disappointed in Kenosha District Attorney Michael Gravely's decision not to charge the officers involved in this horrific shooting," Crump said in a statement.

"We feel this decision failed not only Jacob and his family, but the community that protested and demanded justice."

Graveley said he shared his findings with Blake before speaking to reporters late Tuesday afternoon.

Even before he announced his findings, Graveley pleaded for peace.

"Can moments of tragedy like this be an opportunity to build things?" he said.

The shooting paralyzed Blake below the waist, according to his family.

IMAGE: Jacob Blake (Facebook)
IMAGE: Jacob Blake (Facebook)

Police responded to a call of a domestic incident near 2800 40th St. on the early Sunday evening in late August, officials said.

Kenosha police officers are not equipped with body cameras. A bystander captured the confrontation, which appeared to show Blake walking away and about to get into the driver's side of his SUV when Sheskey opened fire.

Sheskey and fellow Officer Vincent Arenas both used Tasers on Blake but could not stop him, authorities have said.

Blake was near a knife when he was shot, state prosecutors have said, and a blade was found in the footwell of the vehicle.

Raysean White, the bystander who recorded the video, said he heard police yelling "drop the knife!" but never saw Blake armed with a blade. Graveley said the video did not capture attempts to arrest Blake before the shooting.

"Multiple officers tried to grab his arms and try to secure him so he can be cuffed," Graveley said. "He admits at one point, 'Officers were trying to handcuff me, but I was able to get up.'"

Graveley said officers had no choice but to arrest Blake and prevent him from leaving with a car or the children of Laquisha Booker, who has three children with him. And once officers learned that there was a warrant for Blake's arrest, his arrest became a paramount priority, Graveley said.

Graveley said several times Tuesday that it was "incontrovertible" that Blake had a knife in his hand when the incident occurred and that he admitted to getting a knife. Sheskey told investigators that he was unsure whether Blake was going to kidnap or hurt the child in the car.

"Officer Sheskey knows that an armed man with a felony warrant, who just forcefully resisted arrest, appears to be about to flee in a disputed vehicle, and there's at least one child in the back," Graveley said. "Those are all the facts that Officer Sheskey has in the context of a domestic abuse case at the point he has to decide what to do next."

Graveley cited an opinion from former Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, who was hired as an independent consultant for prosecutors, that said it was a reasonable decision to engage in force with Blake based on the information Sheskey had at the time.

The prosecution would also face difficulty with witness testimony, including from Blake himself, Graveley said. He said that while Blake told investigators that he was not sure he had opened his knife and that it would have been "just stupid" to pull a knife on a cop, a similar incident in 2010 likely would have been used against him in a trial.

In the 2010 case, Blake got out of a vehicle and brandished a 3-inch knife at Cook County, Illinois, sheriff's officers who were conducting a traffic stop, according to Graveley and a police report given to NBC News by the Cook County Sheriff's Office. A judge dropped charges against Blake.

"It in no way would be able to demonstrate to you folks that he acted in conformity. This is 10 years ago," Graveley said. "But he would be subject to an absolutely devastating cross-examination that a jury would hear about an incident where he did display a knife. And if he denied any of those things, he would be shown the police reports."

Investigators also had a difficult time getting a statement from Booker, who would have been a key witness in any prosecution, Graveley said.

While it was previously believed that Blake was shot seven times in the back, further examination of Blake's medical records found that he had three entrance wounds on his left side and four shots to his back, Graveley said. He said that while it is "absolutely appropriate" to ask whether seven shots is excessive, Sheskey said he continued to fire until the "threat" stopped as part of his training.

A defense attorney would argue that Sheskey followed his training and that the shots to the back were the result of Blake's having turned away, Graveley said.

"Now, we have no way of determining which of those seven shots come when, so we don't know the order, right?" Graveley said. "I'm suggesting to you simply that there is a rational, logical scenario that anyone defending this case ... for these officers would be able to use this physical evidence I'm describing to be able to persuasively tell a jury."

Wray, a retired police officer who works on national police reform, said that it was a difficult case but that his "ultimate obligation" was to the truth.

Speaking of the criminal justice system, Wray said: "It is hard. It is harsh. It is difficult. It has a history of racism. But we cannot work through this by just trying to find a decision that is comfortable with people. We've got to find the right decision. It's got to be grounded in truth. It's got to be grounded in facts."

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement that while the country has seen a movement to demand equality and justice over the past year, it is clear that "we have failed to deliver on these promises, both as a state and as a country."

"Jacob Blake's life has forever been changed and his kids witnessed violence no kid should ever see, experienced trauma no kid should ever endure, all while the world watched," Evers said. "And yet, when presented the opportunity to rise to this moment and this movement and take action to provide meaningful, commonsense reform to enhance accountability and promote transparency in policing in our state, elected officials took no action."

The NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, who play their home games about 40 miles north of Kenosha, led a brief boycott of several pro sports in the days after Blake was shot.

Two men were shot and killed by a teenager from a neighboring state in the ensuing protests.

Police say Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager from nearby Antioch, Illinois, gunned down Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, during protests Aug. 25. Rittenhouse has been charged with felony homicide, among a host of other crimes.

Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He has insisted that he acted in self-defense and that he was in Kenosha to protect businesses from vandalism and to render medical assistance to injured protesters.

Authorities say he has admitted using a coronavirus stimulus check to buy the semi-automatic rifle that they say he used to kill Rosenbaum and Huber.

Rittenhouse's case has become a cause célèbre in far right-wing circles. Two noted conservative activists, former "NYPD Blue" actor Ricky Schroder and MyPillow Inc. CEO Mike Lindell, raised money for Rittenhouse's bail, according to the young man's lawyer, Lin Wood, who thanked them for "putting us over the top."

The shooting of Blake, along with the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and initial decisions not to charge people involved in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, fueled a summer of international protests against systemic racism.