District judge defends high bond in Pittsburgh police dog killing
K-9 stabbing suspect is considered a flight risk
February 3, 2014 11:52 PM
A wreath commemorating Pittsburgh Police K-9 officer Rocco has been added to the police memorial outside St. Maria Goretti Parish's Liberty Avenue Campus on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield.
Rocco and his handler, Officer Phil Lerza.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The district judge who set a $1 million bond for the man accused of killing a Pittsburgh police dog last week said that he set the amount that high -- at least in part -- because he considers the victim, Rocco, a German shepherd, to be a police officer.
Whether that amount will stand is in question, as President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court has scheduled a bond hearing for John L. Rush today.
District Judge James Motznik, who presided over Rush's arraignment, said on Monday that several factors went into his decision.
"In this case, he ended up killing a police officer, which was a K-9," Judge Motznik said. "To me, it's a member of the public safety department -- whether it's a firefighter, a paramedic or a police officer."
Among other considerations, Judge Motznik said, was the defendant's background.
Rush, 21, was wanted on several outstanding warrants, including for his alleged participation in a violent home invasion and his failure to register as a sex offender.
Bond should be high, Judge Motznik said, if the defendant is a threat to himself or others.
Judge Motznik also questioned what Rush might have done to an average citizen if he behaved the way he did toward Rocco and several police officers involved in his arrest.
An Allegheny County sheriff's deputy spotted Rush last Tuesday night walking on Butler Street in Lawrenceville and attempted to stop him, recognizing that he was wanted on outstanding warrants.
Rush lunged at the deputy and was able to get away.
But 40 minutes later, Pittsburgh Officer Phil Lerza and his K-9, Rocco, responded to a call for a suspicious man in the basement of a home in the 3700 block of Butler Street.
After the man failed to respond to repeated warnings, Rocco was sent in for him.
According to the complaint, Rush "lunged out from near a pillar and attacked K-9 Rocco," swinging the knife wildly.
Rush then punched Officer Daniel Nowak and hit Officer John Baker in the head several times, police said.
Officer Lerza also sustained a puncture wound to the back.
Rocco died on Thursday as a result of his injuries.
Judge Motznik noted that Rush has had repeated trouble with the law and multiple occasions where he failed to appear in court.
Bond in a criminal case is designed to ensure that a defendant is not a flight risk or a danger to the community.
Realistically, a bond set at $1 million, said John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is the same as denying bond.
Bruce Antkowiak, who teaches at Saint Vincent College, said that the amount of bond set for Rush is irrelevant because the man is already being held on a number of detainers.
"It doesn't matter. He could set it at $10,000, $100,000 or $1 million; everyone understands the number is meaningless," Mr. Antkowiak said.
In the event that Rush cleared up all the other existing arrest warrants and charges, then, Mr. Antokowiak continued, bond can be revisited.
Bond hearings -- and reductions -- are common. In Rush's case, his hearing today was requested by pretrial services.
But bonds in Allegheny County set at $1 million are not common.
In recent history, Judge Motznik set bail for Dante Bonner, accused of shooting Pittsburgh police Officer Christopher Kertis in March 2013, at $250,000.
And in another case, an initial bail of $1 million was set for Therman Smith, accused of dragging a Pittsburgh police officer with a car
But Judge Motznik said you can't compare any of those cases.
"Every case is different. Histories are different. Failures to appear," he said. "You can't compare."