A black man shoots a white man in the head and claims self-defense. Part Two covers the defense witnesses, including the shooter himself, closing arguments, and verdict.
In a road-rage incident on September 22, 2020 in Milwaukee, a black bicyclist named Theodore Edgecomb shot and killed an unarmed white man named Jason Cleereman. Mr. Edgecomb was charged with first-degree intentional homicide; the trial began on January 20, 2022. See Part One for opening arguments and the state’s witnesses, including the widow who watched her husband die.
Theodore Edgecomb’s defense lawyer, a black man named B’Ivory LaMarr, called to the stand Stephanie Trotter, a black woman who works as a nursing assistant. She was riding as a passenger in a car, looked out her window, and saw a woman who seemed to be in distress. She said to her husband, “I think something’s wrong; you should turn around.”
Her husband pulled up beside a vehicle belonging to Evanjelina Cleereman, the wife of the victim. Mrs. Cleereman was on the phone; Mrs. Trotter heard her say, “Anna, he shot my fucking husband! He shot my fucking husband!” Mrs. Trotter asked Mrs. Cleereman if she was OK, and she screamed, “No! Someone just shot my fucking husband!”
Mrs. Trotter got out of her car and asked Mrs. Cleereman if she had called 911. When Mrs. Cleereman said, “No,” Mrs. Trotter made the call. She gave emergency dispatchers the location and explained what was going on. Mrs. Cleereman went over to her husband’s body and Mrs. Trotter relayed questions from the 911 operator to her. When 911 proposed explaining to Mrs. Cleereman how to do CPR, Mrs. Cleereman said, “He’s already gone.”
When the 911 call ended, Mrs. Cleereman knelt next to her husband and tried to lift him enough to get into his right pocket. Mrs. Trotter said, “You probably shouldn’t be doing that.” Mrs. Cleereman said, “This is my fucking husband!” Mrs. Cleereman became hysterical and shouted, “Oh, my God!”
Mrs. Trotter said she talked to a detective when he showed up. Mrs. Trotter went home, but a couple of hours later, felt bothered by what she had seen. She called the homicide unit and said the wife’s demeanor was odd; she didn’t seem to be consoling her husband. Mrs. Trotter thought it was “suspicious and weird” that Mrs. Cleereman was trying to get into her husband’s pocket. The officer she spoke to said, “Thank you for the information. Have a good night.”
Under cross examination, Prosecutor Grant Huebner played Mrs. Trotter’s 911 call, in which she said the wife had seen everything and was “hysterical.” The 911 operator asked if the victim was still alive and Mrs. Trotter said that Mrs. Cleereman was “trying to talk to him,” but the man was unresponsive.
Mrs. Trotter’s voice is heard saying: “He was shot point blank in the head. . . . Is he breathing?! . . . No, he’s dead.”
Milwaukee police officer Patrick Tivnan looked for surveillance footage from several locations. He is the primary bicycle mechanic for MPD. When Officer Tivnan arrived at the scene, he was told to do scene security, which involves keeping the public out of the crime scene. He was also ordered to interview witnesses, and he spoke to Jose Perez, who had seen the shooting. “Scene security and canvassing witnesses are typically two separate tasks,” Officer Tivnan said. It was hard to do both at the same time.
The defense showed police body camera footage of a conversation in which Officer Tivnan asked another officer if they should interview a man who had been standing across the street for a while. The other officer said, “Fuck that, we’ve got enough.” Officer Tivnan testified that he did not interview the bystander, because he was already busy keeping the scene secure and staying with Mr. Perez, who had been “identified as an important witness,” to be sure he did not speak to the other witnesses.
The defense team hired use-of-force expert John Black to testify for the defendant. Mr. Black had been an expert witness for the defense in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. Mr. Black had little of relevance to say on the stand. He spent a third of his time going over his credentials. He said video evidence is useful for figuring out distances and timing. He talked how video is different from reality, such as showing only one angle. He said video helps with the objective, physical world, but can’t show how people are feeling. He was not asked a single question about the evidence in the case.
The defendant, Theodore Malcolm Edgecomb, age 32, took the stand. Mr. LaMarr had promised to tell the good, the bad, and the ugly about his client, and he began with the bad, having Mr. Edgecomb admit that he had been convicted of crimes three times in the past. Then he talked about his personal life. He said he is a father of five and his children are his pride and joy. Mr. Edgecomb was soft-spoken and seemed almost childlike as he testified.
Mr. Edgecomb said he was a few credits short of a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Before Covid, he was an electrical product assembler who built transformers. He was unemployed in 2020. He coached his daughter’s tee-ball team and served as a mentor for a youth group.
Mr. LaMarr asked Mr. Edgecomb if he saw any racial tensions in summer of 2020. The defendant said, “The George Floyd situation was pretty prevalent in society at that time.” He talked about marches and protests, and he noticed divisiveness: “People were more brash and bold about what they were doing. It was more out in the open.”
He attended a few protests and brought his children with him. “I taught them about history, black history in particular.” He said he tried to teach his children not to hate and to have empathy because “we’re more alike than we are different.”
Mr. Edgecomb said he had “suffered from being discriminated against,” although he did not give examples. He said he didn’t understand why anyone could hate another person without even knowing him. “Even now, I can’t wrap my head around why anyone would be racist.”
Crime was increasing in Milwaukee. He rode bikes with friends who lived in an area that was supposed to be safe, but they all said crime was getting worse. They started riding in groups because they didn’t feel safe. A friend was mugged while biking. Mr. Edgecomb was a robbery victim in 2018, so he carried a gun, “for protection purposes, never with any intent to hurt, harm or endanger anyone.”
On the day of the shooting, September 22, 2020, he was to have a “daddy-daughter” date night with his oldest daughter, Tyler Grace, because the little ones had been getting all the attention. He choked back tears when he was asked to say the name of his daughter. He had trouble getting his words out, and he sniffled and wiped his eyes. He said his daughter was a good student and helped with her younger siblings. He was to bring home her favorite food that evening.
The gun he was carrying belonged to Ruby Mazell, who he said was his fiancée. He took it with him because he was going out after dark. It was fully loaded with 17 rounds in the magazine.
After placing a take-out order at a restaurant, he rode his bike while waiting for the food. He heard a horn blaring and he saw a car heading towards him. He then realized that two vehicles were about to have a head-on collision, but one car swerved out of the way and then was headed towards him. “As I brace for impact, the vehicle just clips me. Hits my pedal, hits my leg, and then also hits the handlebar. It knocks me onto a parked car.”
He said he had been in a bike accident before, when he was left injured in the middle of the street, and police never found the driver who hit him. This experience “resonated” in his mind. Mr. Edgecomb said that as he was hit, a man yelled the N-word out of his window and said, “Get the F out of the street!” Then the man shouted, “Damn, nigger, you can’t drive, get the fuck out of the road!”
He said there was a person nearby who saw him get hit, who remarked, “The nerve of that guy,” and asked Mr. Edgecomb if he was all right. The defense team never brought that person into court. Mr. Edgecomb said he was furious. “It was like they had no remorse for what they had done. Added insult on top of injury, and I didn’t understand it. In my mind, I thought, maybe these people are drunk.”
Mr. Edgecomb thought, “I can’t let them get away.” He described going after them: “I’m riding pretty fast headed to them. I came up to the passenger window and just asked them, ‘Hey, you know, were you guys talking to me?’ And, he said, ‘Yes, nigger,’ and I punched him.”
The defense played the pole camera video of him riding his bike up to the car. Mr. Edgecomb said that when he looked in the window, the passenger “appeared flushed red in his face, and it kind of confirmed what I was thinking. Yeah, this guy has got to be intoxicated. . . . They didn’t even have any remorse for hitting me at that point. You know, he insulted me again. Called me a nigger again.”
The video played, showing Mr. Edgecomb punching Mr. Cleereman through the car window, and Mr. Edgecomb riding away. “I’m getting away from the situation altogether,” Mr. Edgecomb explained. “I don’t want any more to do with this. I’m focused on getting back home to continue my daddy-daughter date night, getting home to my children safely.”
He heard the car door open and he looked back. He thought the man from the car was out to get him. “I just wanted to be done with this altercation altogether. I wanted to be done with it. I had no business with them.” Mr. Edgecomb said he took responsibility for punching the man. “If I would have known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have punched the guy. I just would have accepted being hit and called a nigger.”
He turned right “to get away from the situation;” standing on his bike to pedal hard as he headed up the incline of a bridge, staying in the bike lane. Mr. LaMarr played the video of the Kia Soul pulling over. Mr. Edgecomb recalled “the loud roaring of their motor, tires screeching. . . these individuals were chasing me down. They were trying to hit me. . . . Fear came over me. You know, as I heard that, Ahmaud Arbery resonated in my mind because I’m like, these people are hunting me down.”
The video showed him biking onto the sidewalk, as the car pulls into the bike lane, up to the curb. Mr. Edgecomb said he was in fear for his life, and his options for escape were limited. He said he felt the heat from the engine on his backside and he was afraid he would be killed. Then he heard someone yell, “I’m gonna kill you, nigger! I’m gonna kill you, nigger!” As Mr. LaMarr led him through questioning, Mr. Edgecomb repeated that threat three times.
Mr. Edgecomb said he put his hand up and said, “Stop, don’t come any closer!” and Mr. Cleereman shouted, “I’m gonna kill you now, nigger!”
He took his gun out, but he was holding it at waist level, down at his side. Then he heard Mrs. Cleereman yell, “He’s got a gun!”
He said he never extended his arm to point the gun at the man coming toward him. “This gentleman took one large step and lunged toward me like he was going to tackle me, and I took a step back. And as I stepped back it was, the reaction from that, the firearm just went off.” He saw a second car pull up behind the Kia Soul, and he thought these people were all together and were going to come out and attack him.
Mr. Cleereman’s fists were at chest level, and Mr. Edgecomb showed the jury the gesture, holding up two fists.
He said, “He appeared to have an object in his hand,” but he couldn’t make out what it was, since it all happened so quickly. As Mr. LaMarr went through the video frame by frame, Mr. Edgecomb explained, “I took a step back, and that’s when the gun went off. . . . I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it.” He said he was afraid people in the parked cars would shoot him.
Theodore Edgecomb said “the gun went off” three times during his testimony, never once admitting that he pulled the trigger. He said he decided to run because a white man had just been shot. “I ran because I didn’t think anyone would believe, you know, anything as far as what had just taken place.” He went right home, but he didn’t feel safe there. He kissed his children. His daughter asked where was the food for the evening. He said everyone was puzzled by his behavior. He gathered a few things and left, so he could “figure everything out.”
A few days later, he learned from the media that the man he shot had died. He admitted that during the next six months, he never turned himself in. He said he spent that time trying to get a lawyer, because he was afraid of “not being heard fairly.” He learned through media reports that law enforcement was calling him “the Brady Street Killer.” That made him more afraid of turning himself in. “Even with the injustices that’s going on and that go on in society, even with being here in Wisconsin, which had a largely black mass incarceration rate, I didn’t feel like I would be heard out as far as my side.”
Mr. Edgecomb said he left Wisconsin to ask relatives to help him with legal expenses. He didn’t want to talk to them over the phone. He went to Georgia, where his father lives, but he was never able to meet with him, or with any other relatives. He stayed in touch with Ruby Mazell, and she called some lawyers for him, but the fees were high: $50,000 – $100,000.
He set up a GoFundMe, but it was taken down, and he was told that “they don’t take care of criminal defense matters anymore.” GoFundMe has not allowed fundraisers for violent crime charges since at least 2015. The contributions were refunded, which Mr. Edgecomb said was a setback.
The press about the Brady Street Killer made him worry that police or private citizens would try to hunt him down and kill him, so he grew his hair longer and dyed it.
He said he didn’t want to be noticed; he wanted to buy time. He didn’t want to turn himself in until he had a lawyer. He said he lied to the Kentucky state trooper as a “last effort” to stay out of custody. He was afraid of being taken involuntarily because: “I could possibly be killed in their custody, like Miss Sandra Bland was.”
When he was arrested, he did not have the murder weapon with him. He said he threw it out the window between Illinois and Indiana. “I didn’t want to be caught with it and give anyone, police or a regular citizen, any reasoning as to, you know, killing me and saying that I was armed, and you know, it being justified.”
Milwaukee PD officers went to Kentucky and began their interrogation by telling him they were there to talk about what had happened in Milwaukee. He replied, “What happened in Milwaukee?” The direct examination ended with Mr. Edgecomb saying that he never intended to hurt anyone and his wishing he could have just accepted being called a nigger and gone home.
On cross examination, prosecutor Grant Huebner asked Mr. Edgecomb if he was legally allowed to carry a firearm on the night in question. He replied that he accepted responsibility for his actions, but Mr. Huebner had to repeat the question a few times before he answered, “No.”
It was hard to get a direct answer from him. He gave rehearsed responses, such as “Can you repeat that?” “I reacted in self-defense,” and “I reacted to protect myself.” The judge told him that he needed to answer the questions, but even after this, he still answered, “I reacted to protect myself.”
“Did someone tell you just to say that whenever I say anything?” Mr. Huebner asked. “No,” he said.
Mr. Edgecomb finally admitted that he left the scene with the gun in his waistband. He turned right on Water Street. Had he gone left, there was a police station where he could have turned himself in. There were bars and restaurants nearby. He did not stop to talk to anyone or ask for help. He went straight home and left his bike there. He left home with a backpack.
He went to a friend’s house, saying he had a family problem. He was there when he found out the police went to his home and searched it. Mr. Huebner asked if he knew the gun could link him to the homicide. He dodged the question several times, and the judge had to tell him to answer questions.
He said he tossed the gun, knowing it was evidence of what he had done. Mr. Huebner asked, “Why take it to another state to toss it out the window?” Mr. Edgecomb said he decided he didn’t want a gun on him, because then law enforcement would be justified in shooting him. He said tossing the gun out the window “was a spur of the moment thing.” He hadn’t been afraid of having the gun until he got to the border of Indiana.
Mr. Huebner recalled that Mr. Edgecomb stated on direct that he left Wisconsin because he needed to get a lawyer. He asked, “Didn’t you already have two lawyers?” Mr. Edgecomb stammered an unintelligible answer. Mr. Huebner named Mr. Edgecomb’s lawyer, Anna Keyes, who on Oct 19, 2020, was waiting for him at a court appearance he missed. He also missed a court date in January 2021.
Mr. Huebner asked the defendant if he had gone back to Wisconsin at any time before he was arrested in Kentucky. Mr. Edgecomb admitted that he had returned to Wisconsin twice, but did not show up for his scheduled court dates. Mr. Huebner named Megan Kaldunski, a lawyer representing Mr. Edgecomb on another case. Mr. Edgecomb said, “I’m not even sure these lawyers were criminal defense lawyers.”
Mr. Huebner asked if the lawyers represented him on two other criminal cases. Mr. Edgecomb’s reply was gibberish. Then he added that he didn’t know what cases Mr. Huebner was talking about. He said he didn’t know if the lawyers would take his case or if they were qualified to handle his self-defense case. “Did you call them?” Mr. Huebner asked. “I called a different attorney.” Mr. Edgecomb admitted to changing his hair so police wouldn’t find him, and to lying to the Kentucky trooper.
Mr. Edgecomb had said he was “infuriated” after the first interaction with the Cleeremans on the road, and Mr. Huebner reminded him that on direct, he had said, “I can’t let them get away.” The prosecutor asked, “You did not want to let them get away with what they had just done, saying these words to you, correct?” Mr. Edgecomb replied, “I wanted to see if they would even acknowledge that they had hit me.”
Mr. Huebner asked, “Sir, did it ever occur to you that the man you just punched in the face might feel the same way that you had felt just moments before? That he couldn’t let you just get away? That he wanted to talk to you or confront you about what happened?” “Can you repeat that?” Mr. Edgecomb said.
He rephrased, “You didn’t want to let these two people get away, correct?” Mr. Edgecomb said it was correct. Mr. Huebner asked if he thought he had the right to chase after someone who had wronged him, but Mr. Cleereman did not have the right to do the same after being punched. “I was getting chased down with a vehicle,” the defendant answered.
The prosecutor asked about the claim that Mr. Cleereman had had something in his hands. He asked what the item in the victim’s hands looked like. “It all happened so quick. I wasn’t fixated on the item.”
“Did you ever think maybe he was just going to punch you after you punched him?” “No.”
Mr. Edgecomb had said the gun was pointing down. He had said earlier that when he stepped back, the gun just went off. “If the gun goes off, pointed down,” Mr. Huebner asked, “How does Mr. Cleereman get one in his eyebrow?” Mr. Edgecomb said when he stepped back, the gun went up. “So you didn’t mean to shoot him?” Mr. Huebner asked.
“There was no intent there, no,” Mr. Edgecomb said. “Total accident he got shot?” “Yes.”
Mr. Huebner asked if he would have ever turned himself in if police had not caught him. Mr. Edgecomb said, “It was always the goal to turn myself in, but I just wasn’t sure if anyone would believe the narrative of a white man and his wife hunting me down and trying to cause harm to me.” He maintained that he would have turned himself in once he had a lawyer.
“But only after you got rid of the gun?” Mr. Huebner asked. “No, that’s not true, I only did that because I didn’t want it on my person.”
B’Ivory LaMarr began redirect by asking Mr. Edgecomb about an ADD diagnosis as a child. He asked if Mr. Huebner’s questions made him nervous, Mr. Edgecomb said, “More than nervous.”
Mr. LaMarr asked how he felt when the word “homicide” was used. There was an objection because this wasn’t relevant, so Mr. LaMarr tried another approach. Why didn’t he go to a police station? What was his state of mind? Mr. Edgecomb said he was in shock and couldn’t believe what had just happened.
Mr. LaMarr mentioned that he previously stated he had fears. “One of those fears was because you had killed a white man, is that right?” “Yes.”
Mr. Edgecomb was in fear of the police; he didn’t think they would believe him. The fear remained for the whole six months. When the Kentucky trooper pulled him over, he was afraid he “wouldn’t make it back” from police custody.
Mr. LaMarr revisited the high legal fees Mr. Edgecomb had been quoted. The two lawyers he was already working with were public defenders who did not charge a fee. “As far as a public defender,” Mr. Edgecomb said, “they don’t fight as hard for you, especially being a black person, like they don’t put in efficient work ethic to help you.” He said public defenders don’t know who you are when they see you. They have to figure out what your case is. He thought “different matters require different lawyers.”
Regarding the “I can’t let them get away” statement, Mr. LaMarr mentioned that Mr. Edgecomb’s gun was loaded with 17 rounds. Why didn’t he shoot through the car window instead of punching? “I never intended to hurt or harm anyone,” Mr. Edgecomb said.
Mr. LaMarr tried to get his client to go back to the self-defense claim. “Is it true that the only reason why you pulled the trigger was because of self-defense . . . because you believed there to be an object in his hand?” His client didn’t take the hint. “It was reactionary to him lunging towards me. The gun just went off. I didn’t even put any thought as to the gun going off.”
Mr. LaMarr asked if he had weapons training. He said he worked in security; he worked with border patrol and coast guard doing maritime security on docks and had worked security at a train station. He had a weapon during classes and did exercises at a firing range.
The prosecution’s closing was brief. Mr. Huebner noted that the defense claimed there had been an accident in which Mr. Edgecomb was hit and thrown off his bike, but he pointed out that Mr. Edgecomb continued riding and there was no evidence of damage to the bike; the jurors had seen pictures of it. He reminded them that police watched video from surveillance cameras on that road and did not find footage of Mr. Edgecomb being hit by a car. “All it was, was a situation in which Mr. Cleereman yelled, possibly swore, and he hurt the defendant’s feelings,” Mr. Huebner said.
He emphasized that Mr. Edgecomb’s reaction had been, “I can’t let them get away,” even though he claimed he just wanted to see if they would acknowledge hitting him with the car. The defendant punched the victim, and when the victim came towards him, all the witnesses saw him lift a gun and shoot Cleereman in the head. Rodtrell Cameron called police urging them to come quickly and find the shooter.
Mr. Huebner said he was disgusted that the defense questioned Mrs. Cleereman’s love for her husband when it knew there was video of her in a police car, crying and heartbroken.
The suspicions the defense tried to raise about Mrs. Cleereman taking her husband’s wallet or going through his pockets did not amount to anything. If the defense was trying to suggest that Jason Cleereman had threatened Mr. Edgecomb with a knife, would his wife take the knife and put it in his pocket? She testified that her husband had blood on his hand from touching his face after the punch; why wasn’t there blood on the knife?
He showed the jury a photo of Mr. Cleereman’s right hand that was taken as he lay dead on the ground. There was blood all over the palm. He showed the photos of the blood on the car door and window. “That bloody hand would have had to go into this pristine pocket, leaving no blood on the knife, on the pocket, or anywhere. It didn’t happen.”
Mr. Edgecomb’s claim that his gun was lowered when it went off made no sense; the Medical Examiner’s report said the fatal wound was a straight shot to the head.
The defendant fled and took an indirect path home. The first thing he got rid of was the bike, because everyone saw him riding it. “He gets rid of the gun two states away because he’s trying to avoid being caught. That’s why he goes on the run, that’s why he dyes his hair, that’s why he says he’s from the Bahamas and tries every last ditch he can to not be held responsible!”
Mr. Huebner accused him of playing dumb on the stand, and said that when his self-defense story wasn’t going well, he switched at the last minute to “it’s an accident.”
Mr. Huebner reminded the jury that “intent to kill,” (for the first-degree intentional homicide charge) means the action is “Practically certain to cause death.” The defendant knew when he shot the victim it was practically certain to cause death, because he had weapons training and practice.
If the defendant provoked the attack, he can’t claim self-defense. There is an exception if the assailant then withdraws. He may use force “if he believes the force is necessary.” Did the jury really think Mr. Edgecomb believed that he needed to shoot an unarmed man in the head to prevent the man from killing him?
“He started a fist fight, and then he brought a gun to it. . . . When the victim said words, he punched him. When the victim gets ready for a fight, he kills him. Every escalation of the violence in this case has come from the defendant.”
Mr. Huebner said the jury should find there was intent to kill, but if they did not find that, then there was a charge of criminally reckless conduct. Did he create a risk of death or great bodily harm? Shooting a man in the face qualifies. Was there utter disregard for human life? Shooting him in the face qualifies.
He said the self-defense claim didn’t work because it required that there be something in the victim’s hands. “The defendant saw the victim’s hands. There was nothing in them. And he shot him. No weapon, just a man who is confronting the defendant after the defendant punched him in the face. And for that reason, ladies and gentlemen, he’s guilty.”
The prosecution’s closing took about 20 minutes. Mr. LaMarr took the full hour and a half he was allowed, even though the judge warned both sides that it shouldn’t be necessary to take all the time allotted. Mr. LaMarr was not as eloquent as Mr. Huebner, and at times overly dramatic.
“The state didn’t come up and talk about a wallet. We never heard about a wallet in this case. We told you that the crime scene was contaminated. We told you that seconds afterwards, there was tampering of evidence in this case. . . . Now we’re talking about a wallet all of a sudden. Now, one and a half years later, there’s an explanation for a wallet.”
Mr. LaMarr pressed the race issue. “This is a precedent-setting case. This is a rare case that has been presented to you where this time, there’s an African American man who is now using self-defense against a Caucasian man. You don’t see that every day.”
He said the defense team considered not putting its client on the stand, because it felt the state had not met the burden of evidence, but Mr. Edgecomb insisted that he wanted to tell his story. Mr. LaMarr went on to make excuses for the defendant’s poor performance on the stand: “The same fear that he had after being hunted down by these two individuals. The same fear he described as being the next Ahmaud Arbery, the same fear he had with turning himself in to law enforcement, and wondering if he could be taken into custody safely, as he described what he recalled from Sandra Bland. The same fear he exhibited on this stand yesterday.”
Mr. LaMarr added that his client was afraid because he’s on trial for murder: “Who wouldn’t be afraid, especially in the city of Milwaukee, where you have amongst the largest incarceration rate for African American men?”
The defense tried to sweep aside all of the incriminating factors, such as bail jumping, illegally possessing the gun, and punching Mr. Cleereman, by saying, “He took responsibility for it.” Then he repeated that if Mr. Edgecomb had it to do over, he would “just accept being called a nigger.”
He started to talk about why Mr. Edgecomb had one demeanor when being questioned by his own lawyer and a different demeanor when being questioned by the prosecutor. “When I first met Mr. Edgecomb,” Mr. LaMarr said, “He was a little bit guarded even with me.”
This led to an immediate objection, with the judge shouting, “Sustained! Sustained!” Mr. LaMarr was making himself a witness. He continued by talking about his client’s fear of “going against a government where it’s not popular to use that type of force against another race.” He criticized the state’s examination, saying not everything has a simple yes or no answer. He brought up his client’s ADD diagnosis and said that it shows itself in a high stress situation. He said Mr. Edgecomb “was afraid of being tripped up.”
Mr. LaMarr interpreted his client’s words, explaining that when he said the gun “went off,” he meant that he was “not shooting intentionally.” He elaborated, “We all articulate ourselves differently. Members of the jury, we’re diverse people. The words I might say to describe something might not be the words that you might use.” Then he said they shouldn’t discredit Mr. Edgecomb “based on wordplay.”
He acknowledged that Mr. Huebner used good questioning techniques as prosecutor, and begged the jury, “Please don’t hold that against Mr. Edgecomb.”
When talking about how his client feigned ignorance to the police in Kentucky, Mr. LaMarr said, “When Mr. Edgecomb is comfortable, he answered (sic) the questions.”
The oddest thing B’Ivory LaMarr said in his closing was: “We talked about the fear, and we talked about what happened on the stand. These are red herrings. So we’re here, it’s a distraction, so let’s now talk about the state’s burden of proof.” How did it serve him to say the points he just tried to make were a distraction?
The judge suddenly ordered the courtroom cleared. A producer at the Law & Crime Network that was covering the trial, tweeted: “COURT HALTED! It appears a juror is ill and possibly throwing up.”
When court resumed, Judge Borowski said that one of the jurors, a “younger white female” had been feeling light-headed. He decided to excuse her and make her the alternate. This juror did not deliberate. Another alternate had already been excused for a death in the family.
When Mr. LaMarr continued, he said the state liked Rodtrell Cameron because he had described the shooting as “cold blooded.” He reminded the jury that Mr. Cameron had nevertheless testified that after the shooting, Mr. Edgecomb had looked “shocked.”
Mr. LaMarr focused on the fact that Mr. Cameron said Mr. Edgecomb withdrew from the fight after punching Mr. Cleereman. This was important because although Wisconsin law says one may not claim self-defense if he provoked the attack, it also says:
“The privilege lost by provocation may be regained if the actor in good faith withdraws from the fight and gives adequate notice thereof to his or her assailant.”
The defense attorney said Mr. Edgecomb was responsible for “part” of the incident, the punch. Then he said the punch was justified because of the racial slurs Mr. Cleereman used.
Here are more points Mr. LaMarr made during his closing, which was long-winded, non-chronological, and sometimes repetitive.
- The investigators had not done a thorough job; Officer Tivnan testified that they declined to interview a man who was hanging around the scene.
- Cleereman’s testimony was unreliable because she sugar-coated her husband’s language by testifying that he had said, “What the heck.”
- There was a police station nearby and the Cleeremans could have easily gone there and reported the punch, instead of chasing Mr. Edgecomb.
- Detective Kirkvold agreed that removing an item from a crime scene compromises it, and he never took Mrs. Cleereman down Brady Street to find the location of the first interaction with the bicycle.
- No one tested Mr. Cleereman’s pocket for DNA.
- When Mr. Edgecomb was provoked by Mr. Cleereman’s language, he punched instead of shooting.
- Edgecomb had 17 rounds, but fired only one.
- There was video of officers not knowing where Mr. Cleereman’s wallet had come from and one of them said, “That’s a problem.”
- The gun was supposed to be a deterrent, but Mr. Cleereman kept coming.
- Video shows Mr. Edgecomb running away, trying to escape. “Cold-blooded killers don’t run away from the person they’re trying to kill.”
- Evanjelina Cleereman said she couldn’t call 911, and yet she called her family.
Mr. LaMarr showed a photo of Stephanie Trotter and reminded the jury that she said it was “weird” that Mrs. Cleereman went through her husband’s right front pocket. “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury,” Mr. LaMarr said, “What was found in the right front pocket?”
He held up Mr. Cleereman’s pocket knife.
He isolated a few frames from the pole camera video. The first showed Mr. Edgecomb riding his bike away from the Cleeremans’ car after the punch, and said this was “withdrawing.” He isolated a frame with Cleereman’s legs parted and said that is the moment he lunged at the defendant. Another frame showed Cleereman standing straight up in a boxer stance. He finished this sequence by playing video of Cleereman’s body falling to the ground in slow motion, an unwise decision that most likely evoked more sympathy for the victim than for his client.
Mr. LaMarr talked about the six months Mr. Edgecomb spent hiding. “Especially as an African American man. We still have issues in this country. We talked about the cases. He talked about he believed he was hunted down like Ahmaud Arbery. He talked about the George Floyd, and being taken into custody and of course, when a situation happens like Sandra Bland. We still have work to do.”
Even if Mr. Edgecomb ran away, it did not mean he was guilty of murder. He was “imperfect,” but not a cold-blooded killer.
Mr. LaMarr concluded with a Frederick Douglas quote: “In a composite nation like ours, as before the law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship. Equal rights in a common destiny.”
Mr. LaMarr said we are still trying to get there. “You can see wrong and you can make it right. You can see suffering, and you can stop it.” He urged the jury to “use common sense” and find the defendant not guilty.
The prosecution was allowed a rebuttal and Mr. Huebner made the most of it. “He pulls the trigger and he puts a bullet in the victim’s head. He says he’s not a killer?! He killed someone!”
He added that Rodtrell Cameron didn’t say anything about the shooter looking shocked when he spoke to the police; he was begging them to find and catch the guy who blew someone’s head off.
Mr. Huebner said the defense brought up other legal cases because they don’t have an argument. “Your verdict has to be based on this case and this case alone.” He pointed to the defendant. “Let’s talk about what he did. . . . Some injustice that you may feel that happened in some other case does not excuse or allow or invite injustice in this case.”
He said everything the defense council went through in its arguments would not add up to a not guilty verdict; it was just a matter of which one of the homicide charges he was guilty of. He said that if we had Mrs. Cleereman swerving her car on video, it wouldn’t change what happened when the defendant pulled the trigger.
“The facts are clear, the law is clear. He’s guilty, Ladies and Gentlemen; your verdict is clear.”
Mr. Edgecomb was charged with First Degree Intentional Homicide, but the jury had the option of choosing a lesser charge. On January 26, it reached a verdict after two and a half hours of deliberation. The jury found Theodore Edgecomb guilty of a lesser included offense — first-degree reckless homicide, use of a dangerous weapon — a charge that had previously been offered in a plea deal. This could mean a prison sentence of up to 60 years for reckless homicide and an additional five years for the dangerous-weapon addition.
Mr. Edgecomb also pleaded guilty to his two bail jumping charges — one felony that could add up to six years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine, and a misdemeanor that could add up to nine months in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
The Cleereman family released a statement:
The Cleereman Family, wife Evanjeline and children Amelia and Jack, thank the jury for their service and verdict, and the police and prosecutors who worked very hard to solve this case. They continue to mourn the loss of their dear husband and father, Jason Cleereman, and ask that their privacy be respected, comforted in the knowledge that justice has been served.
The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression also released a statement:
This trial has clearly shown that self-defense is only acceptable when you are born into and defend white supremacist institutions. [Judge] Borowski showed his true sympathies in this trial, and his sympathies lie with the racist system. Our hearts go out to the Edgecomb family, as this is truly a hard day for them. The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression will not stop demanding justice for Theo Edgecomb until he is free.
Sentencing is scheduled for April 8.