Just as the state Legislature passed “Rocco’s Law,” which would toughen penalties for anyone accused of killing a police animal, the attorney for the man accused of killing the bill’s namesake asked in Common Pleas Court for the case to be heard by jurors from outside Allegheny County.
John Rush, 21, is expected to go to trial on charges including disarming a law enforcement officer, cruelty to animals, harming a police animal, robbery and burglary, in the fall before Judge Jill E. Rangos. On Wednesday, his public defender, Aaron Sontz, filed several motions with the court, including one asking for jurors from outside of Allegheny County to hear the case or to relocate the trial elsewhere in the state because of pre-trial publicity.
There will be a hearing on the issues on July 3.
“The pretrial publicity has been overly sensational, including one-sided descriptions of the conduct from police officers, video of large police processions, honor guards, flags flying at half mast, funeral services with bagpipes and interviews with various police officers and other public officials describing Rocco as a sworn police officer, which is simply an incorrect statement of Pennsylvania law,” Mr. Sontz wrote.
He said media coverage has also provided potential jurors with the defendant’s mental health history, criminal record and his status as a Megan’s Law offender — not to mention the introduction of Rocco’s Law as a result of the incident.
Included with his motion was a thick stack of printouts of stories related to the Jan. 28 incident. Some of the stories were published in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Toledo, Ohio.
A sheriff’s deputy spotted Rush walking that night in Lawrenceville and recognized him as having an outstanding warrant. Rush lunged for the deputies gun and ultimately fled, but officers then got a call about a suspicious man in the basement of a building on Butler Street. Officer Philip Lerza first sent in his K-9 partner of four years, Rocco. Police said Rush came out swinging, stabbed Rocco and injured three officers and a sheriff's deputy on the scene.
The dog was an 8-year-old German shepherd. It died two days later.
There was a large public outcry against Rush, and fundraisers were conducted to pay for Rocco’s treatment.
Almost immediately, local legislators introduced Rocco’s Law, which has now passed the state House and Senate and awaits Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature. The governor has 10 days to sign it.
Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, and Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, sponsored the bills.
Under the changes outlined in the legislation, a greater criminal penalty — up to a $25,000 fine and as long as 10 years in prison — could be imposed instead of the current $15,000 fine or up to seven years imprisonment..
“Up until now, Pennsylvanian law provided the same penalty for taunting a police animal as it did for killing one,” Mr. Maher said. “When I found this incongruity that would equate taunting and killing, I immediately recognized that something should be changed.”
In the meantime, Rush is being held in the Allegheny County Jail without bond.
In his motion, Mr. Sontz also asked to sever his client’s separate cases, including one for failing to register as a sex offender, for which the outstanding warrant existed.
Rush’s attorney has also asked Judge Rangos to prohibit the commonwealth and any witnesses from referring to Rocco as a “police officer, peace officer or K9 officer.
“Such references are contrary to Pennsylvania law,” Mr. Sontz wrote. “K9 officers are the officers who handle the canines, not the canines themselves. ‘Rocco’ was a ‘police animal.’ ”
The defense attorney said that he wants to “prevent the commonwealth from anthropomorphizing Rocco in an attempt to garner sympathy or empathy in a manner that is contradictory to Pennsylvania law.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. Kate Giammarise and Yanan Wang contributed.