In a March 6 news conference, Anand Swaminathan, an attorney representing Tony Robinson's family, points to a chart showing where bullets struck Robinson. Although the lawsuit has been settled, the lawyers made their research and arguments in the case public.
Ald. Rebecca Kemble would like the shooting death of Tony Robinson by Officer Matt Kenny investigated further and wants to have a discussion about the matter with her Common Council colleagues.
Kemble says she will discuss with the council’s Subcommittee on Police and Community Relations the possibility of asking the police department to launch a new investigation of the shooting and dig further into Kenny’s account of what happened that night two years ago.
Kemble’s interest in a new probe comes after a March 6 news conference where lawyers for the Robinson family revealed evidence they gathered about the shooting during a now-settled civil lawsuit. That information is available on tonyrobinsonshooting.com. It includes depositions, images, audio and video taken from the crime scene, and forensic reports. The attorneys claim the information “unambiguously and unequivocally” proves Kenny lied about what led him to shoot Robinson in an east-side apartment stairwell on March 6, 2015.
They also argue the police department’s internal investigation into the shooting was geared toward exonerating Kenny.
“What I heard [at the press conference] gives me great pause about how internal investigations are done, and we will be looking into changing that and possibly even re-do[ing] an internal investigation of this case,” says Kemble. “I’ll be proposing this when we meet [March 9].”
The wrongful death lawsuit brought by Robinson’s mother, Andrea Irwin, was settled two weeks ago for $3.35 million. Nevertheless, the attorneys released their evidence and arguments about what happened that night “so [the public] can reach their own conclusions.”
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association,says he wishes the case had gone to trial. “We find it difficult to reconcile the Robinson family’s efforts to try their case in the court of public opinion, after they chose to settle the case and stay out of a court of law,” he says. “If they felt as confident about their claims as they suggest, we would have preferred they hadn’t agreed to a settlement. Which was a choice that Matt Kenny did not have. Matt Kenny would have preferred a trial and the opportunity to clear his name again.”
On March 6, 2015, Kenny responded to calls that a young man was jumping in and out of traffic on Williamson Street and assaulting people. Kenny entered 1125 Williamson St. looking for Robinson. Moments later, he shot the unarmed 19-year-old seven times. Robinson had taken psychedelic mushrooms earlier that day. Kenny, who remains on the force, was cleared of wrongdoing by both Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and the police department.
Kenny told investigators that when he arrived at the scene he believed Robinson was assaulting someone in the upstairs unit. Kenny said he was confronted in the stairwell by Robinson, who he said punched him in the head and continued to repeatedly swing at him. Kenny said he feared that he would lose consciousness and be disarmed, so he shot Robinson in self-defense.
Anand Swaminathan, an attorney from the Chicago firm of Loevy & Loevy, claims his team gathered “objective, forensic evidence [that] illustrates why the shooting did not and cannot have happened in the way that Officer Kenny claimed it did.”
Specifically, the family attorneys say that synchronized audio and video from the incident show that Kenny couldn’t have been at the top of the stairs when he began firing. “The audio and video show that Officer Kenny was at the base of the stairs — it doesn’t take a forensic scientist to see that. He couldn’t be at the top of the stairs for the first shot and then be coming out the [bottom] doorway by the second shot,” says Swaminathan. “That means that Officer Kenny’s story about being punched at the top of the stairs and responding with a shot is untrue.”
“The location of the bullet casings are all at the base of the stairs and outside, indicating the shots were fired at the base of the stairs,” he adds. “There is no high-impact blood spatter anywhere above the halfway point of the stairs — that’s strong evidence that there were no shots fired at the top of the stairs.”
The attorneys also fault the police department’s internal investigation, saying it was intended to clear Kenny. The officer was never questioned, they claim. “They asked zero questions of an officer whose story at even first glance was problematic,” says Swaminathan. “That’s a broken internal investigation process.”
When asked for a response, police spokesperson Joel Despain points to a blog post by Police Chief Mike Koval. That blog states that independent agencies do the initial investigation and interview of officers involved in shootings. The department’s internal review then relies “on this investigative information — generated by an independent agency — [which] should generate more trust in the internal MPD process.”
In a later statement, Koval said that he cannot respond to specific arguments raised by Robinson’s lawyers. “We cannot comment on a one-sided version of facts that will never be subjected to the cross-examination afforded by a trial,” Koval says. “To suggest that you have ‘new’ evidence supplied by experts paid by the plaintiffs should be considered in the context from which it is proffered.”
Kemble says she wants a new internal investigation so that Kenny will be “interviewed directly” and questioned “on the discrepancies between his story and the forensic and scientific evidence. Those are important questions that should be answered.”
When asked if anything would lead Koval to re-open the Robinson investigation, DeSpain points to a section in the chief’s blog that reads, “I am confident in both the process and outcome of MPD’s internal review of the incident.... I do not intend to re-open MPD’s internal investigation into this incident nor do I see grounds for any further criminal review of this incident.”
Citing state statute, Kemble notes that the Common Council or mayor could direct the chief to begin a new investigation: “The chief shall obey all lawful written orders of the mayor or common council.”
City Attorney Michael May says it can be tricky defining what a “lawful order” is. “Assuming for purposes of argument that a resolution directing the chief to re-open an investigation was a ‘lawful order’ of the council that the chief must comply with, I am relatively confident that the council could not direct the chief as to the manner or depth of any such re-opening or re-examination,” May adds. “That would be up to the chief.”
Ald. Paul Skidmore agrees with May. “There are certain things we can do, certain things we can’t do. Telling [Chief Koval] how to do policy is something that state statute prohibits us from doing,” he says, adding, “It’s really a moot point because the investigation has been completed.”
Instead of debating this case further, Skidmore wants to prevent the city’s insurance company from settling lawsuits without input from elected officials. At the March 7 Common Council meeting, Skidmore introduced a resolution that “would require [the insurance company] to involve and have review by the city council and the mayor of settlements.”
“I’ve talked to Matt — he wanted his day in court but he was denied that. He wanted the ability to prove his innocence and now he doesn’t get that,” says Skidmore. “And now we have to listen to the Robinsons’ attorneys and the Robinsons trash the city and [Kenny].”
After publication Ald. Rebecca Kemble responded to say that she is not calling on the Madison Police Department to reinvestigate the Robinson shooting. However, she is asking the council's subcommittee on police and community relations to consider asking for such an investigation.