I attended the entire day and a half long inquest into the death in police custody of 20-year-old Mequon resident Matthew Sheridan, and was perhaps the only person who did so who was neither a friend or family member, nor a police officer, nor paid or required to be there. I was the ‘public’ referred to in the term ‘public inquest’. I heard the evidence presented to the jury, and I had never met any of the people who caused or were affected by this tragedy. But I was not a disinterested observer. Two months ago I had written in this column about Matthew’s demise. Because of that involvement, I am compelled to comment on the inquest.
The evidence was presented in a biased, not an impartial manner. The only witnesses called to testify were police officers, and the coroner who prematurely ruled the death an accident, rather than calling for an inquest. There was no other witness called. Witnesses were questioned by the district attorney, who displayed explicit bias favorable to police conduct. Who inquired in defense of the rights of the deceased and the others falsely suspected and detained in the incident? Not the district attorney. There was no cross-examination of witnesses. D.A. Sandy Williams repeatedly and incorrectly referred to the vinyl bag pulled over Sheridan’s head as a “spit bag”. This repeated ‘error’ had the obvious effect of planting confusion in the minds of jurors. Her introductory comments, the line of questioning, and the summation to the jury could not have been a more effective or clever defense of police conduct than that of a private attorney retained specifically for that purpose.
The testimony repeatedly stated and reinforced a few talking points. It seemed to be orchestrated. I did not, therefore, find it convincing. However, I did find Officer Klobukowski’s testimony convincing, and in that I agree with the jury’s finding that he had not knowingly and recklessly caused Matthew’s death. I believe that Officer Klobukowski is one of the victims suffering because of this tragedy. Absent evidence to the contrary, we should all encourage Officer Klobukowski to continue as a police officer in Ozaukee County, and let him know that our sympathy and best wishes are with him. I think he is a decent and good cop, and one of whom we will, eventually, be justly proud, and especially fortunate to be served by in his future career. This I, and others, learned at the inquest.
There were other things I learned. You’ve read and heard reports that Matthew was spitting. But the testimony at the inquest made clear that Matthew was very roughly “escorted” to the ground, hands already cuffed behind his back, by five officers who kneeled on his back and bound his ankles, with one officer holding his head and forcing his face in the filthy dirt by the side of the road. Matthew did not spit in anger or contempt, or at anybody. He was clearing the dirt and filth from his mouth the only way he could when the five officers picked him off the ground, bound hand and foot. That was when the bag that asphyxiated him was pulled over his head and he was strapped, completely immobilized, into the back of the squad car.
One thing we did not learn at the inquest, is that the original complaint about driving away without paying for ten dollars worth of gas was completely false. Another thing we did not learn at the inquest was why so many squads from 4 police departments were on the scene and investigating this minor and false allegation from someone at a convenience store. If you forgot and drove off without paying for gas, would you expect to be pulled over, surrounded by multiple squad cars, searched, arrested and handcuffed? If you were suspected of having done such a thing, and the suspicion was false and you had not driven off without paying for gas, wouldn’t you object to such treatment by police, and even become indignant if your objection was unheeded? I doubt that Matthew was as “psychotic, uncooperative, irrational, obscene, combative” as the inquest testimony and the uncritical reports in the media had portrayed him. Matthew, being white and from Mequon, probably thought, despite being young and riding in a car with several persons whose skin complexion was not usually seen in lily white Ozaukee County, that he actually had rights that everyone, including the police, were bound to respect.
While focusing on the minutiae of the incident, I observed the sorrow in the eyes and the heart of the mother who had carried and birthed him, and who had nurtured his unique path and struggle to attain manhood. She attended the entire inquest, and heard her son slandered by the one-sided testimony while she was in the depth of her grief. I never knew Matthew, but he was much like a lot of us who were, unlike him, fortunate enough to have survived our own youth and foolishness.
If Matthew wasn’t nearly as bad as they said, and if Officer Klobukowski is a good cop, as I believe he is, why did it happen, and where is the fault? The Jury may have been right to exonerate Klobukowski, but it was remiss in not ascribing substantive responsibility for the negligent homicide of Matthew Sheridan to the management of the several police departments involved. They are responsible for the deficiencies in supervision and training and oversight and cultural competency that resulted in the violation of Matthew’s right to life. Who will take all necessary steps to insure that such official disregard of human and civil rights will never again occur here?
September 30, 2004 (See “R.I.P. Matthew Sheridan” for part 1 of 2)