A violation of the judge's order forces the jury selection to start over in a high profile Milwaukee homicide trial

·5 min read
Jason and Evangeline Cleereman. Jason was killed during a traffic encounter in Milwaukee in September 2020. The defendant is arguing self-defense.
Jason and Evangeline Cleereman. Jason was killed during a traffic encounter in Milwaukee in September 2020. The defendant is arguing self-defense.

A judge had to scrap the initial attempt to pick a jury Tuesday for the trial of a man raising self-defense in the fatal shooting of lawyer after a traffic encounter in Milwaukee.

Theodore Edgecomb, 32, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the Sept. 22, 2020 shooting of Jason Cleereman, 54, an immigration attorney and advocate. Moments earlier, Edgecomb, who was riding a bicycle, and Cleereman, a passenger in a car driven by his wife, had exchanged words. Edgecomb at one point punched Cleereman through the open car window.

Edgecomb struck Cleereman, while stopped on Brady Street, before Edgecomb rode onto Holton Street. It was there that the Cleeremans followed and pulled over before Cleereman got out and confronted Edgecomb, who shot Cleereman once.

Edgecomb claims Cleereman had uttered a racial slur, prompting the punch, then used it again and threatened to kill him when he ran at Edgecomb on the bridge.

Edgecomb's first trial date, Jan. 3, was postponed when the judge tested positive for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Circuit Judge David Borowski called up a pool of 50 potential jurors, 20 more than usual, given the media attention Edgecomb's case has received in recent weeks. It took until about noon for the first couple dozen people to give basic information about where in the county they lived, their occupations, their hobbies and any ties to law enforcement.

Before the lunch break, defense lawyers told Borowski they were concerned the panel of potential jurors included only three or four people of color, and was not a fair cross section of the community. The judge told both sides to research the issue over lunch.

After the break, Borowski, citing a 2019 appeals court decision on the same issue, said he didn't think the defense could make an initial case the Clerk of Court intentionally summoned people for jury duty, or assembled panels for Edgecomb's trial, in a discriminatory, unlawful way. The cited decision found the fact any one random panel may not mirror a county's racial makeup did not in itself prove systematic exclusion of minorities.

Theodore Edgecomb, left, with one of his children
Theodore Edgecomb, left, with one of his children

More: Self-defense cleared Kyle Rittenhouse; will it work for a Black man who shot a white lawyer?

Defense attorney Aneeq Ahmad pointed out more than a dozen of the potential jurors were briefly seen on the court's livestream, as they moved to seats in one area of the room. Apparently someone had taken screenshots of them, which would be a violation of Borowski's order that no one photograph the potential jurors.

Borowski around 2:30 p.m. agreed to strike the entire panel, and start over with a new set of 50 possible jurors he said could be assembled later Tuesday. By 3:30, the new group had assembled. Borowski had told the original panel the trial was expected to last through Friday, and possibly into Monday,

The jury selection took place in Room 500 of the Courthouse, while CourtTV was setting up cameras and microphones in a Safety Building courtroom where the trial was to be held.

Because of COVID-19 precautions, there was not enough space in Room 500 for the panel and spectators or reporters. The jury selection process was instead livestreamed over the court's system. One of the four cameras in the room did show some of the jury panel walking to their seats. The potential jurors were only identified by numbers, not their names.

People hold makeshift signs at a picket in solidarity with Theodore Edgecomb, at the intersection of Brady and Holton, held by The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression Dec. 17, 2021 in Milwaukee
People hold makeshift signs at a picket in solidarity with Theodore Edgecomb, at the intersection of Brady and Holton, held by The Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression Dec. 17, 2021 in Milwaukee

Borowski expressed some frustration over the livestreaming arrangements, calling Tuesday "a prime example" of how it doesn't always work as well as the state Supreme Court thinks it does. He said the only reason someone would take a screen shot of the jurors would be to "potentially intimidate" them later, which he called "despicable behavior."

Defendant left Wisconsin after fatal shooting

Edgecomb left the area after the shooting and was arrested about six months later in Kentucky. He has been jailed on $250,000 bail awaiting trial.

At the last pretrial hearing on Jan. 10, prosecutors amended the charges to first-degree intentional homicide, from first-degree reckless homicide.

The defense also wanted the trial to focus only the homicide charge, and have two counts of bail jumping tried separately. Those charges are for having a gun in violation of the conditions in two open cases at the time — one for first-offense drunken driving with injuries, another for felony domestic battery.

Ahmad said he feared the information might lead jurors to think because his client shouldn't have had a gun, he's not entitled to the privilege of self-defense.

Borowski denied Ahmad's motion to sever the bail jumping charges. On Tuesday morning, Edgecomb instead pleaded guilty to those counts, one a felony and one a misdemeanor. If he testifies as expected, he will have to say he has those convictions, but will limit evidence coming in about the details.

Since a hearing on Dec. 21, there have been a flurry of additional pretrial motions. The state obtained a material witness arrest warrant for a man who saw both encounters between Edgecomb and Cleereman. Rodtrell Cameron initially told police Edgecomb's actions were "cold blooded."

But in recent weeks, according to prosecutor Grant Huebner's affidavit, Cameron repeatedly avoided service of his witness subpoenas and failed to show for meetings he agreed to over the phone. He also told one staffer with the DA's office that testifying was "the last thing on his totem pole."

Cameron was arrested Jan. 12 and remained in the Milwaukee County Jail on Tuesday.

Contact Bruce Vielmetti at (414) 224-2187 or bvielmetti@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Violation forces two jury attempts at Milwaukee homicide trial