Man shot by Pittsburgh police after traffic stop faces trial

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A man shot by Pittsburgh police in November as he drove away from a traffic stop with an officer leaning inside the passenger door was held for court after a preliminary hearing Thursday.

Paralyzed in the shooting, Leon Ford, 19, appeared in court in a wheelchair next to his attorney, Fred Rabner, who said that officers kept his client in an overly long traffic stop after he had identified himself.

"My client was simply reacting to overzealous officers who had no basis to enter his vehicle," he said.

Mr. Ford has been charged with aggravated assault, three counts of reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and traffic violations stemming from the Nov. 11 incident in Highland Park.

A felony escape charge was dropped.

Officer David Derbish, who was called in as backup that night, testified Thursday that he saw in Mr. Ford's pocket the outline of what he believed to be a gun and alerted two other officers. Those officers did not testify at Thursday's hearing.

One of those officers, Andrew Miller, was attempting to pull Mr. Ford from the car after he would not get out after repeated requests.

Officer Derbish testified that he leaned in the passenger side, then put one foot on the ground and the other leg on the passenger seat for leverage because he thought Mr. Ford was reaching for a gun as Officer Miller tried to tug him out.

"I identified immediately that there was inherent danger here," he said at the hearing.

Mr. Ford hit the gas pedal and the two men struggled in the car until Officer Derbish shot him four times in the torso, leaving him in critical condition. He crashed seconds later.

Officer Derbish testified Thursday that Mr. Ford put his hand on the officer's chest while in the car, attempting to push him away.

Mr. Rabner said if officers suspected Mr. Ford had a gun, they should have drawn weapons and demanded he get out of the car. He also noted that officers' conversations with his client weren't recorded -- an exchange he has previously called crucial to his case.

Mr. Ford, his attorney said, is paralyzed from the waist down and will never walk again. "It's a sad story all the way around," he said.

Judge Darwin Rushing reviewed the video from the camera mounted on the windshield of the patrol car, but because officers did not wear or turn on their microphones during the stop -- or because of a malfunction, it is still unclear -- conversations between them and Mr. Ford cannot be heard. Mr. Rabner told Mr. Ford to turn the other direction while the video played, because he did not want him to watch.

No guns or drugs were found in Mr. Ford's vehicle or on him, Mr. Rabner noted.

After the hearing, Mr. Ford's father wheeled him back to family members, who were in tears toward the end of the hearing. One relative told Mr. Ford, "It's going to be OK, baby."

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Molly Born: or 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede. First Published March 8, 2013 5:00 AM


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