Madison, Wis. – Two court-appointed prosecutors on Wednesday declined to charge a Wisconsin sheriff’s deputy in the fatal 2016 shooting of a man sleeping in a park, saying they didn’t think they could defeat a self-defense argument.
The decision echoes a district attorney’s finding years ago that Joseph Mensah had acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Jay Anderson Jr., one of three people he fatally shot over a five-year period.
Mensah was a Wauwatosa police officer at the time, but has since become a Waukesha County Assemblyman.
That special prosecutors, Milwaukee Attorney Scott Hansen and La Crosse District Attorney Tim Gruenke spent months reviewing the case, consulting judges and attorneys, and even conducting a sham trial with a jury, repeatedly noting that they used the argument in self-defense couldn’t overcome. Ethical considerations prevent prosecutors from prosecuting cases they know they can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt, Hansen said.
“I’m just sorry there’s nothing we can do to heal these wounds,” Hansen told Judge Glenn Yamahiro as Anderson’s family looked on from the courtroom gallery. “But there isn’t. And that is our conclusion.”
Mensah met 25-year-old Anderson who was sleeping in a car after work at a Wauwatosa park in June 2016. Mensah said he fired after Anderson reached for a gun in the passenger seat, and Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm declined to charge Mensah later this year. Chisholm also chose not to charge Mensah Death of one of the other two people he killed.
Anderson’s family denied that Anderson had reached for the gun. Her attorney, Kimberly Motley, used an arcane legal maneuver akin to a grand jury investigation to convince Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn Yamahiro that enough existed probable reason to back Mensah’s charge. He appointed Hansen and Gruenke as special prosecutors in December to review the case and bring charges if necessary.
Motley argued on Wednesday that Gruenke and Hansen were legally required to press charges because Yamahiro decided there were enough probable causes to support a complaint.
“This law was written on the books to protect people who are victims, like my clients are,” Motley said.
Yamahiro said he believes the statutes only oblige him to find a probable cause and initiate an investigation. He said self-defense is difficult to overcome, and Hansen was right when he said prosecutors cannot ethically prosecute cases they know they can’t prove.
He sympathized with Anderson’s family but said he never thought a case against Mensah would be a “slam dunk.”
“I’m sorry this isn’t a more satisfying outcome for you from that perspective,” he said.
Linda Anderson, Jay Anderson Jr.’s mother, told the judge that all the work that went into enforcing the second review was “for nothing.”
“I’m not stopping until this man is behind bars where he needs to be,” she said, earning applause from the gallery.
Mensah’s attorney, Jonathan Cermele, did not immediately respond to an email message following the hearing.
Mensah joined the Wauwatosa Police Department in 2015. That year he fatally shot Antonio Gonzales, who prosecutors said had refused to drop a sword. Mensah killed Anderson the following year. In 2020, he shot and killed 17-year-old Alvin Cole as Cole was fleeing police after a disturbance at a mall. Mensah said he fired because Cole pointed a gun at him. This shooting sparked months of protests.
Chisholm explained his rationale for not charging Mensah in Cole’s death, saying evidence showed, among other things, that Cole fled from police with a stolen handgun, fired a shot while fleeing, and defied police orders to drop the gun to let.
Mensah is black, just like Anderson and Cole. Gonzales identified as Native American.
Hansen and Gruenke wrote in a 25-page report summarizing their investigations and conclusions that the shootings of Gonzales and Cole were relevant to Anderson’s case and that a judge would not allow it if they attempted to take the shootings to court with one another to connect.
They added that Mensah put himself in danger during his encounter with Anderson by approaching Anderson’s vehicle from the passenger side rather than the driver’s side, using his squad’s floodlights instead of emergency lights, not waiting for backup officers, and not keeping Anderson’s gun Insight. However, that doesn’t change whether he acted in self-defense the moment he opened fire, they said.
Mensah resigned in 2020 under pressure from the Wauwatosa Police Department and joined the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department.
The Anderson family has filed a civil complaint against Mensah in federal court. Motley said after the hearing that she looks forward to deposing Mensah under oath.
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