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Sitting Inside Milwaukee County Gun Court

Gun court begins every weekday morning at 8:30 at the Milwaukee County Courthouse. A glass window divides where the court sessions happen and the public space where people can watch. It’s where UWM student Emily Zantow sat.

There was a heaviness when you would walk in. You definitely could feel a heaviness in the atmosphere especially when the family members would be around and sitting in there and just watching their reaction the second that their child or their other family members, you know, would walk into the court room. It was just it gets you right in the heart,” said Zantow.

Zantow, Rebecca Papenthien and I analyzed 550 cases that came through gun court. The data shows that more than 90 percent involved African Americans and more than 90 percent were males. Some defendants were felons and had open cases pending. We found that the median bail was $5,000, and defendants had violated pretrial orders - such as by failing drug tests and GPS rules. The median sentence was less than two years behind bars.

READ: Media Milwaukee Investigates: Inside Milwaukee Gun Court, Where Bail is Low, Prison Uncertain, and New Crimes Occur

We also learned that there is one judge overseeing gun court - Frederick Rosa. He told us he grew up in Brooklyn, New York during the civil rights era and was inspired to become a lawyer by leaders such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Student Rebecca Papenthien says she was struck by Rosa’s respectful manner in court.  

“I think I picked up most on his characteristics and how compassionate and understanding he truly is. He tries to take every story individually just as that,” said Papenthien.

While many cases go through gun court, Rosa says a recent one that stood out to him involved dashcam footage. It showed a young man firing a gun at a Glendale police officer on a school playground – just missing a young girl.

We wanted a gun offender’s perspective on the system, and an inmate at the Milwaukee County jail agreed to talk.

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Credit Susan Bence
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Three of the journalism students who took part in the Milwaukee gun court project. From left to right, Pakou Lee, Rebecca Papenthien and Emily Zantow.

He’s serving time for 1st Degree recklessly endangering safety, bail jumping and witness intimidation. He told us that he knew what he did was wrong, that there is a cycle of violence in the city - and he wants to break it so his son doesn’t take the same path.

We also reached out to family members of defendants through social media or in court. Zantow says a few were skeptical.

“I would ask people often times hey are you a family member. A lot of the times they didn’t really want to and you would hear things muffle under breaths such as this was some family members one time they said the DA, the prosecutor, the defense, they all go to lunch together, they’re all on this together,” said Zantow.

We saw different reactions from people watching the court – from some crying when the judge sentenced defendants to prison, to attorneys who appeared upset with decisions, such as when the judge denied probation to a person accused of road rage.

Finally, we wanted voices from outside of the system, sharing their ideas about reducing gun violence in Milwaukee. Papenthien recalls a few people trying to make a difference.

“Just like Gee’s Clippers, Gee himself, an amazing person who is providing services for young boys around the areas. We also met Pastor Ken, he’s trying to save 206. So we really got to meet the positive on the flip side of it all. People who are trying to change this and really make the path the other way,” said Papenthien.

The full project on Milwaukee gun court can be reviewed at Mediamilwaukee.com.

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