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Theodore Edgecomb expected to argue self-defense at trial over fatal shooting on Milwaukee's Brady Street

Edgecomb protest.jpg
Maayan Silver
/
About 20 people gather at the western end of Brady Street to support Theodore Edgecomb and his family. Some racial justice activists are backing his self-defense claim after he fatally shot attorney Jason Cleereman.

Pre-trial court proceedings continued Tuesday in the case of a man accused of homicide for shooting a local immigration attorney on Milwaukee's Brady Street after a traffic altercation.

Lawyers claim the suspect acted in self-defense, and some racial justice activists are rallying around him. But friends and family of the victim say the facts show anything but self-defense.

In September 2020, Theodore Edgecomb was biking west on Brady Street, toward the Holton Street Bridge. Jason Cleereman, a Milwaukee immigration lawyer, was the passenger in a car that his wife Evanjelina was driving.

According to the criminal complaint, as the car passed Edgecomb, Evanjelina Cleereman swerved to avoid him, and the two men exchanged words. Edgecomb is accused of punching Jason Cleereman through an open window.

Surveillance video shows the Cleeremans turn the corner quickly, following Edgecomb onto the bridge. As the car pulls towards the curb, Edgecomb moves onto the sidewalk. Jason Cleereman gets out of the car and approaches Edgecomb, who fatally shoots him.

Attorneys B’Ivory Lamarr and Aneeq Ahmad are representing Edgecomb. Lamarr appeared at a press conference this month, saying: “We will say that we believe that this is a clear case of self-defense. And we look forward to and maintain confidence in our judicial system to establish the same.”

The attorneys plan to argue that the shooting was justified by self-defense, a claim Kyle Rittenhouse also made, resulting in his recent acquittals in Kenosha.

Some racial justice activists point out that Edgecomb is Black, while Rittenhouse is white, and they wonder whether that will make a difference in the trial's outcome.

At a December news conference, activist Vaun Mayes asked, “The question is, is self-defense reserved for certain individuals in this state? Would it have been better if this was during a protest or unrest? Would it be more clear-cut or better if an AR-15 was used? Theodore Edgecomb deserves the same right that Kyle Rittenhouse got.”

About 20 supporters of Edgecomb are gathering every Friday near the site of the shooting to draw attention to the case.

Omar Flores of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression argues the shooting was justified in part because Edgecomb claims Cleereman used a racial slur and Cleereman’s wife drove toward Edgecomb.

“It's not like he went up to some random guy whose car window and started punching them for no reason. The guy was shouting racial slurs at him, the guy was trying to hit him with this car. I think any reasonable person would have done the same thing,” said Flores.

Friends and family of Cleereman issued a statement saying he did not provoke the shooting. They say he committed his life and practice of law to equal justice under the law and that the claim that he used racist language is beyond offensive.

The statement says Cleereman produced no weapon and threw no blows. It also says Edgecomb fled the scene and was arrested six months later in Kentucky. The statement says “someone who thought they acted in self-defense would never do any of those things.”

And it contends that comparing this case to Rittenhouse’s is a blunt plea for racial equality that is misplaced, because every case is different.

Kim Motley, a criminal defense attorney not affiliated with the case, says racial justice seeps its way into so many different scenarios, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

“There's a reason why Milwaukee incarcerates more Black men than any other city in the United States. It's not because necessarily people are more prone to criminal activity, [it] is because of a racially unjust and unequal legal system that unfortunately, is part of the fabric of America,” said Motley. “So self-defense, if it's an appropriate defense, it's something that should be available to everybody.”

Motley says under the U.S. Constitution, every single person with a criminal trial is entitled to a defense.

But Motley says ultimately whether Edgecomb prevails will come down to what the jury believes based on the unique facts of the case.

Tony Cotton agrees. He's a criminal defense attorney, also not associated with the case. Cotton says he's surprised by the comparison of this case to Rittenhouse’s, for a few reasons.

For one, he notes that Edgecomb is accused of concealing his firearm, unlike Rittenhouse, who carried it in the open.

“I don't think his argument is going to be ‘I thought someone was trying to disarm me,’” said Cotton. “I think the argument is going to be or should be, ‘I was in fear for my life, because this person swerved over to the side of the road got out of the vehicle came after me, probably said things.’ So I think it's probably going to be more based on what the defendant was perceiving in those moments.”

Cotton says the law is worded in a way that favors self-defense. If the defendant plausibly raises the claim that he thought his life was in danger, the prosecution has to disprove it.

We may find out what the jury thinks soon. The case is scheduled to go to trial on January 3.

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