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Trial To Begin For White Police Officer Who Shot Unarmed Black Teen

Mar 18, 2019
Originally published on March 18, 2019 8:07 pm

A white suburban police officer goes on trial in Pittsburgh on Tuesday for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager last summer.

Former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld shot and killed 17-year-old Antwon Rose in June 2018 as the teen ran from a car that the officer had pulled over. The vehicle had been involved in a drive-by shooting 13 minutes earlier.

The teen, however, was unarmed, and just last week, another passenger in the car pleaded guilty to firing in the drive-by.

Someone in a nearby house filmed the officer shooting at Rose and posted the video on Facebook hours later.

"Before the police could create a narrative that would justify the shooting of Antwon, we saw the video: We saw him running away," local activist Jasiri X said.

Rose's death sparked weeks of protests that shut down local roadways. Demonstrators felt that Rose's death fit a national pattern of police brutality against black residents.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala charged Rosfeld with homicide the week after the shooting.

"You do not shoot somebody in the back if they are not a threat to you," Zappala said. The district attorney added that the officer gave conflicting accounts of whether he thought Rose was armed.

Rosfeld's attorney, Patrick Thomassey, contends that the fact that Rose was in a car involved in a drive-by shooting should be taken into account.

"This car was involved in an attempted murder — that's why it's being stopped. It's not being stopped for going through a stop sign," the lawyer said after a hearing in September.

Pittsburgh civil rights attorney Tim O'Brien said the jury will need to decide whether the officer could have reasonably seen Rose as a threat.

O'Brien noted that the law gives police the benefit of the doubt and said Rosfeld's lawyer will argue a number of factors: "that the officer's ability to observe wasn't as clear because it was dark, because of where he was standing, that he misinterpreted something that he saw."

A man holds a photo of Antwon Rose during a June 2018 protest in Pittsburgh. Former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld shot and killed 17-year-old Rose as the teen ran from a car the officer had pulled over, sparking protests across the city.
Justin Merriman / Getty Images

Moreover, Rosfeld's case revealed that the suburb of East Pittsburgh had no policy on when to use deadly force. University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris predicted that this fact will be part of Rosfeld's defense.

"'I was trained this way. I did what I was trained to do. I did not go outside the training,'" Harris said. "That's what his contention will be."

Activist Jasiri X said no matter what the defense argues, he hopes the video of the shooting will convince jurors.

"Video of a young man running away unarmed, being shot three times in the back — it should be open and close," Jasiri X said, "and the fact that it's not is super-problematic."

The shooting generated so much publicity that a judge worried that a local jury would deny Rosfeld a fair hearing. Jurors will come from Harrisburg instead.

Since they must travel about 200 miles to Pittsburgh, the trial will run through the week and into the weekend if necessary.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A white police officer goes on trial in Pittsburgh tomorrow. He's accused of fatally shooting an unarmed black teen last summer. Even though it happened in Pittsburgh, the jurors in this case are coming from the city of Harrisburg. A judge had ruled that pretrial publicity in Pittsburgh posed a threat to a fair trial. From member station WESA, An-Li Herring has more details.

AN-LI HERRING, BYLINE: It was around 9 p.m. on June 19 that suburban Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld pulled over a car that had been involved in a drive-by shooting just minutes earlier. His gun drawn, he ordered the three occupants out of the vehicle and to the ground. Suddenly, the two passengers bolted. One of them was Antwon Rose, who Rosfeld shot three times while he was fleeing. Rose had no weapon. And just last week, the other fleeing suspect pleaded guilty to firing the shots in the drive-by. Someone in a nearby house caught the shooting on video, posting it on Facebook hours later.

JASIRI X: And so this time, before the police could create a narrative that would justify the shooting of Antwon, we saw the video. We saw him running away.

HERRING: That's activist Jasiri X, who helped lead protests last summer that stretched out for weeks after Rose's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Three shots in the back. How do you justify that? Three shots in the back. How do you justify that?

HERRING: For the demonstrators and others, Rose's death fit a national pattern of police brutality against black residents. A week after the shooting, County District Attorney Stephen Zappala charged Michael Rosfeld with homicide. The DA said Officer Rosfeld did not face a threat of death or serious bodily injury when Rose ran away from him and added that after the shooting, the officer gave conflicting accounts of whether he thought the fleeing victim was armed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN ZAPPALA: You do not shoot somebody in the back if they are not a threat to you.

HERRING: But Rosfeld's attorney, Patrick Thomassey, says the fact that Rose was in a car involved in a drive-by shooting should be taken into account.

PATRICK THOMASSEY: This car was involved in an attempted murder. That's why it's being stopped. It's not being stopped from going through a stop sign. People in that car - whoever - just tried to kill somebody.

HERRING: Pittsburgh civil rights attorney Tim O'Brien says it's unclear if Rosfeld knew who in the car had a gun and that the jury will need to decide whether Rose could have reasonably been viewed as a threat. O'Brien notes that the law gives police the benefit of the doubt and says Rosfeld's lawyer will argue a number of factors.

TIM O'BRIEN: That the officer's ability to observe wasn't as clear because it was dark, because of where he was standing, that he misinterpreted something that he saw and that it was a mistake.

HERRING: This case also reveals something we've seen in other police departments across the country - the lack of a policy on when to use deadly force. University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris says that will also likely be part of the defense.

DAVID HARRIS: I was trained this way. I did what I was trained to do. I did not go outside the training. That's what his contention will be.

HERRING: Activist Jasiri X says no matter what the contention, he hopes the video will convince jurors.

JASIRI X: Video of a young man running away unarmed being shot three times in the back. It should be open and closed. And the fact that it's not is super problematic.

HERRING: Since the jurors live 200 miles away, the trial will run through the week and into the weekend if necessary. For NPR News, I'm An-Li Herring in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.