Prosecution says paralyzed Millvale man made choice to flee

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The prosecution told the jury hearing the case against Leon Ford, who was shot and paralyzed while attempting to flee a traffic stop, that it is a “story about choices and consequences.”

Mr. Ford chose not to obey officers’ orders to exit his vehicle. He chose to slam his car into gear with an officer in the passenger seat with him.

“He made the choice to hit the gas,” assistant district attorney Robert Schupansky continued. And in a video of the incident, Officer David Derbish can be heard inside the car, “and he’s screaming ‘Stop.’ He’s screaming ‘stop, stop, stop.’

“And then he shoots.”

But the defense told the jury that the case is really about three “undisciplined, overzealous” Pittsburgh police officers who “threatened and harassed” Mr. Ford and “routinely violated their own guidelines” during the more than 16-minute traffic stop.

Defense attorney Fred Rabner said his case would be built upon four pillars: that Leon Ford is not Lamont Ford; that Officer Derbish jumped inside a running car against policy and shot and paralyzed an unarmed teen; that the prosecution cannot prove any motive or intent from Mr. Ford to harm the officers; and that the officers failed to wear or activate their video and audio recordings during the traffic stop as required by department policy.

Mr. Ford is charged with aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, resisting arrest and traffic counts stemming from the stop the night of Nov. 11, 2012. His trial before seven women and five men in front of Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen began Tuesday.

Mr. Ford, now 21, of Millvale, was pulled over by Zone 5 Officers Andrew Miller and Michael Kosko for speeding.

Officer Kosko, who now works in law enforcement in Polk County, Fla., testified that Mr. Ford’s driver’s license, insurance card and pink slip for the purchase of the Infiniti he was driving all matched for the name of Leon Ford. When no criminal history or warrants came back in the computer for that name, Officer Kosko said he ran just “L. Ford,” in the event the driver used any aliases.

That’s when he saw an active arrest warrant for Lamont Ford.

“That photo was very similar to the photo I had of the driver’s license,” Officer Kosko testified. “I thought it could be the same person.”

The two patrol officers then called Officer Derbish to the scene to see if he could positively identify the driver.

The officers spoke back and forth about the driver’s identity, and eventually ordered Mr. Ford out of the car.

“He was asked multiple times to step out of the vehicle,” Officer Kosko said. “He said ‘no.’”

Under the law, he testified, any traffic stop can be conducted with the officer asking the driver to step out.

Although Mr. Schupansky characterized the refusal as a blatant act by Mr. Ford, Mr. Rabner said his client, who had been cooperative all along and described to the officers that he worked in an auto body shop, simply declined the request.

Mr. Rabner said the situation began to escalate, with the officers telling Mr. Ford to get his “black ass out of the car.” He said they then physically pulled on him -- so much so that they rocked the car back and forth.

Almost immediately, Mr. Ford’s vehicle shifted into gear -- with Officer Derbish in the passenger seat -- and pulled away. Within three seconds, Officer Derbish fired five times, Mr. Rabner said.

Officer Kosko raced to the car, pulled Mr. Ford out, put him face down on the ground and handcuffed him. Medics were called.

But Mr. Rabner told the jury in his opening that the officers stood over Mr. Ford, who was “riddled with bullets,” swearing about what had happened, and telling the man on the ground they hoped he would die.

Officer Kosko denied that anyone ever used profanity with Mr. Ford or used any racial terms.

“That’s not how we conduct ourselves,” he said.

He also denied that anyone ever stood over Mr. Ford in the roadway and swore, or wished him harm.

“It’s horrible that he is injured,” Officer Kosko said. “It’s horrible that he is injured from an interaction we had with him.”

During cross-examination by defense attorney Thomas Malone, the officer testified that he forgot his lapel microphone in his patrol car when he first approached Mr. Ford for the traffic stop, even though it was a violation of procedure.

He also acknowledged that he never provided that information to the investigators who worked the case.

At one point during Officer Kosko’s testimony near the end of the day, Judge Machen had Mr. Ford’s father, Leon Ford Sr., removed from the courtroom after he laughed out loud in response to an answer provided by Officer Kosko.

Earlier in the day, Pittsburgh Detective Kelly Knerr testified that she went to the hospital two days after the incident to photograph and fingerprint Mr. Ford, and while she was there, he asked her if any of the officers were hurt.

When he learned Officer Derbish might have broken his hand, Mr. Ford asked her, ‘Can you tell him I apologize? I was scared. They were saying my license wasn't me,’” she testified.

“He apologized for his actions,” Mr. Schupansky told the jury. “He acknowledges what he did was wrong.”

Paula Reed Ward:, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard. First Published September 2, 2014 1:20 PM

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