Pittsburgh Area Cop Who Killed African-American Teenager Indicted

A Pittsburgh area police officer has been indicted on homicide charges after a video emerged that appears to show him shooting a fleeing suspect in the back

A Pittsburgh police officer who shot and killed a young African-American man, setting off several days of protests in the city, has been indicted on criminal homicide charges:

A police officer in East Pittsburgh, Pa., was charged with criminal homicide on Wednesday in the fatal shooting last week of Antwon Rose II, an unarmed 17-year-old who was struck three times while attempting to flee.

Officer Michael Rosfeld, 30, turned himself in to the authorities around 7 a.m. and was booked into a jail in Allegheny County. He was arraigned about an hour later and released after posting $250,000 bail, despite an argument by prosecutors that he should be denied bail, given the severity of the charge.

The Allegheny County district attorney, Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said that Officer Rosfeld had failed basic police procedures in the moments before Antwon was shot, gave statements to investigators that were contradicted by witnesses and had a troubling employment history with other police departments.

“I find that Rosfeld’s actions were intentional and they certainly brought about the result he was hoping to accomplish,” Mr. Zappala said at a news conference on Wednesday. “Unless you see a genuine threat, it’s inappropriate and in fact criminal to take someone’s life.”

Officer Rosfeld came upon Antwon and another teenager, Zaijuan Hester, when he stopped a car they were riding in that had been seen leaving a drive-by shooting in the nearby town of North Braddock, the police said. Zaijuan, 17, was charged on Wednesday in connection with that shooting, but Mr. Zappala said that Antwon did not fire a weapon and was not an active participant.

“Antwon Rose didn’t do anything in North Braddock other than be in that vehicle,” he said.

In Pennsylvania, a criminal homicide charge enables prosecutors to argue for a range of more specific charges, from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. Mr. Zappala said prosecutors would try to make a case for first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence.

The district attorney’s office also plans to refer the case to the office of the United States attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania because of problems that investigators uncovered with the East Pittsburgh Police Department.

When law enforcement officers from other agencies responded to Antwon’s shooting, Mr. Zappala said, East Pittsburgh officers told them that they did not know how to handle the situation because the department did not have clear guidelines.

Mr. Zappala said that the department does not have policies “for anything, as far as we know.” He added: “Someone’s dead. Can there be anything more dangerous?”

(…)

The charge against Officer Rosfeld capped days of protests in the Pittsburgh area, and came two days after family and friends held a funeral on Monday afternoon for Antwon at Woodland Hills Intermediate School, in Swissvale, Pa., where he was a rising senior.

During the service, his friends read a poem he had written. “I see mothers bury their sons,” it said. “I want my mom to never feel that pain.”

Officer Rosfeld pulled over a Chevrolet Cruze the evening of June 19 that matched the description of a vehicle seen near an earlier drive-by shooting in North Braddock, in which a 22-year-old man was struck in the abdomen.

Without waiting for backup, Officer Rosfeld approached the driver’s side of the car and had the driver step out. As he was placing the driver in handcuffs, Antwon, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, and Zaijuan, who was in the back seat, jumped out.

Witnesses said Antwon flashed his hands in the air, showing that they were empty, and then turned to run away, according to the district attorney’s office. A video of the encounter posted on Facebook shows the teenagers running from police vehicles as three shots are fired, and Antwon falling to the ground.

Officer Rosfeld, who spoke with investigators on Friday, initially told them that Antwon had turned his hand toward him and was holding “something dark,” and that he thought it was a gun. But when he was asked again about what had transpired, Officer Rosfeld said he did not see a gun.

“When confronted with this inconsistency, Rosfeld stated he saw something in the passenger’s hand but was not sure what it was,” according to the criminal complaint. “Officer Rosfeld stated that he was not certain if the individual who had his arm pointed at him was still pointing at him when he fired.”

Witnesses told the police that they heard Officer Rosfeld fire three shots — all of which hit Antwon. One struck the right side of his face, another hit his right elbow and a third, which was the fatal wound, hit his back and then struck a lung and his heart, an autopsy found.

Antwon was pronounced dead at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center at McKeesport at 9:19 p.m.

You can watch what appears to be a video of the shooting on Facebook, and it certainly seems from the incident that Rose was shot while he was running away, although the video does not show whether or not he had turned around once he was out of the view of the person shooting the video. Based on this video, though, and on the fact that Officer Rosfeld’s statements about what happened during the stop that led to the shooting were initially inconsistent and ended up being inconsistent with the autopsy results, it’s certainly safe to say that the shooting is questionable at best and potentially criminal at worst, something that the prosecutor apparently agrees with.

I’ll admit that I have not paid much attention to this case before now other than taking note of the protests that have been going on in the Pittsburgh area. However, based on what I have read and on the video that has been released, the legitimacy of this shooting is at the very least questionable. From the video it appears that Rose was shot in the back as he was running away and, while evading the police in this manner is a crime it is generally the case that police have the right to use deadly force in such a situation unless there’s a clear threat to public safety, which apparently did not exist in this case. In that case, it seems as though this case should be a rather clear-cut case, although it’s hard to say right now if it merits murder charges or some lesser included offense such as manslaughter. That will be a decision that the prosecutor, and ultimately a jury or Judge will have to make in the future.

As it stands, of course, prosecuting this case will not be easy. As a matter of law, convicting police officers in cases such as this has proven to be difficult in no small part because the law recognizes that they have a right to use deadly force in situations where members of the public would not. This is one of the main reasons why so many of the most controversial cases involving deaths at the hands of police, such as the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the case involving the death of a man who was in police custody in Baltimore when he died, allegedly as a result of injuries received while being transported in a police vehicle. Each of the cases that were prosecuted in that case ended up with either an acquittal at a bench trial in the case of officers who chose to waive their right to a jury, or in a hung jury. I’m not well versed enough in Pennsylvania law to say what the chances of a successful conviction are in this case, but it will be worth keeping an eye on this case.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    No worries…the kid was black..the cop will get off.
    If, for some bizarre reason, he doesn’t…Dennison will pardon him.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    We really need to do a much better job of screening and training police officers. It’s absurd that a city as big as Pittsburgh is hiring these rejects.

    But the prosecution is grandstanding here by over-charging. It’s next to impossible to get a jury to convict a sworn officer for first-degree murder for actions committed while on the job. It’s impossible to get into his mind and, to the extent the jurors try, they’re going to sympathize with an officer in a stressful situation. Unless there’s some pre-existent beef between the officer and his victim that we don’t know about, this is a negligent homicide, not a murder, much less a first-degree murder.

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  3. george says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Cops get off no matter what color their victim. Look up the video of the white guy killed by a cop while crawling down a hallway (Daniel Shaver), begging for his life. Sentence for cop? Not guilty of course, the guy was crawling and begging aggressively.

    American cops kill about 1000 people every year (about half white, which means that though they’re three times more likely to shoot blacks, they’re still happy to shoot 500 white guys). Guess how many are convicted?

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  4. Timothy Watson says:

    @James Joyner: The officer works for East Pittsburgh, which is a separate municipality, not that your point isn’t valid for any police department as there have been some claims made about this officer’s personnel background.

    And in any homicide case, the jury (or judge) has to make a determination of the intent of the accused. Why should police somehow be exempt from that? Or are they so abnormal that it’s impossible for the trier of fact to determine whether they acted with premeditation?

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    The officer works for East Pittsburgh, which is a separate municipality

    Ah, didn’t notice that.

    And in any homicide case, the jury (or judge) has to make a determination of the intent of the accused. Why should police somehow be exempt from that? Or are they so abnormal that it’s impossible for the trier of fact to determine whether they acted with premeditation?

    Because they’re under color of authority and in a life-threatening situation almost by definition, it’s just impossible to prove premeditation unless he’s yelling racial epithets or has a personal beef with the victim. Hell, it would be weird to charge someone who killed someone in a bar fight with first-degree murder.

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  6. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Perhaps. But it’s good to see the police being held to account.

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  7. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner: @James Joyner:

    But the prosecution is grandstanding here by over-charging.

    Possibly.

    However, its also very true that overcharging is a valid and common strategy that many prosecutors use in approaching criminal cases. Overcharging, combined with mandatory minimums, leads to a lot of plea deals — especially in situations where a defendant doesn’t want to deal the significant costs associate with going to trial. It’s a pattern that has accelerated over the last few decades.

    I can’t say that is necessarily the case here. But it is an everyday reality within our criminal justice system (and arguable one that demonstrates how unhealthy it is).

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  8. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    We really need to do a much better job of screening and training police officers. It’s absurd that a city as big as [East] Pittsburgh is hiring these rejects.

    This really is a national problem, and not something I would want to leave up to the individual police departments. We need federal guidelines, and implementation at the state level, at the least.

    That said, it should be clear to even the dimmest cop that shooting suspects in the back is frowned upon.

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  9. Timothy Watson says:

    @James Joyner: Because running away from someone, while being unarmed, is somehow even remotely close to a bar fight?

    I am not a lawyer, but Pennsylvania law states:

    a) Murder of the first degree.–A criminal homicide constitutes murder of the first degree when it is committed by an intentional killing.

    […]

    “Intentional killing.” Killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.

    Pulling out a firearm and firing multiple rounds at someone is obviously willful, deliberate, and premeditated. And premeditation is only required to exist for a single moment of conscious thought, at least in Virginia.

    If a shooting of someone, under the same circumstances except the shooter being some random guy, would you even imagine the shooter being charged with anything other than first-degree murder?

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  10. EddieinCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    But the prosecution is grandstanding here by over-charging. It’s next to impossible to get a jury to convict a sworn officer for first-degree murder for actions committed while on the job. It’s impossible to get into his mind and, to the extent the jurors try, they’re going to sympathize with an officer in a stressful situation. Unless there’s some pre-existent beef between the officer and his victim that we don’t know about, this is a negligent homicide, not a murder, much less a first-degree murder.

    This is another one of those situations, Dr. Joyner, when I have to ask: WTF?

    Are you serious? Maybe it’s because I’m a person of color, but damn, if shooting someone three times IN THE BACK WHILE THEY’RE FLEEING isn’t murder in the 1st, based on Pennsylvania law, then throw out the law.

    HE WAS SHOT THREE TIMES IN THE BACK. Unarmed, and had shown the police his hands before he turned and fled.

    WTF? Seriously? You need to re-think this.

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  11. teve tory says:

    Not sure the voting software is working correctly. Eddie in Ca just had 3 upvotes and I reloaded the page and he has zero. Then I reload again and he has 3. Weird.

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  12. Kathy says:

    @teve tory:

    I’ve seen things like that, too.

    Also, sometimes one post is at zero, and after I click for up-vote, it changes to 3, 4, or higher.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @EddieinCA: While I understand your outrage, you (and James probably) are missing the bigger point. How are they going to use the big blue wall to get an acquittal if the DA charges him with something a judge or jury will convict him of?

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  14. george says:

    @EddieinCA:

    This is how it goes with cops and courts. Google Daniel Shaver, shot and killed by a cop while he was crawling on his hands and knees, begging for his life. It was a straight forward assassination, the video as disturbing as this one. In that case the cop was found not guilty for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @EddieinCA: whether or not you agree with James, just recognize that on a jury of 12… one of them is going to have views much like James’.

    And another is probably going to be even more deferential to the police officers.

    Negligent Homicide might honestly be the way to go. Avoid any and all issues of what was going on in the officer’s head, and focus strictly on any failures to follow process and show that this led to a situation where he used deadly force.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @EddieinCA: @Gustopher: I’ve written about this many times in the past. It’s simply next to impossible to convict a cop for murder for decisions made in the line of duty. Jurors are extremely loath to second-guess officers, given the danger they face on a daily basis and the sense they’re taking those risks for the good of the community. That a really high percentage of them, especially in less-than-elite departments like this, are thugs and wannabe soldiers doesn’t enter into their consciousness.

    Beyond that, though, my understanding of first-degree murder is that it requires deliberation, intent, and malice. Unless we can demonstrate that the officer either had it in for the victim, had fantasies of killing black men, or had some other motive than fear, it’s just not first-degree murder. It’s almost certainly a wrongful death, for which he should be terminated, face jail time, and be subject to restitution under civil suit.

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