Leon Ford waits with his mother, Latonya Green, as the jury in his trial deliberates at the Allegheny County Courthouse in September.
By Lexi Belculfine / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Allegheny County district attorney announced Friday he would not retry a man shot and paralyzed by Pittsburgh police, saying the decision was made partly to aid police-community relations.
“It is my hope that not proceeding to a second trial will assist both the Chief and our community in this regard,” District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. wrote in a news release announcing that Leon Ford would not face a second jury on charges stemming from a 2012 traffic stop.
Local activists and experts say the decision will do just that.
“If they had decided to prosecute, it may well have provoked the community — a community which is already upset about police and citizen interactions,” said John Burkoff, a criminal law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “The absence of poking a stick at this problem is a good thing.”
It is common for a prosecutor to consider public opinion, Mr. Burkoff said, but the candor about the decision making is less so.
Mr. Ford, 21, of Monroeville, was found not guilty of two felony counts of aggravated assault Sept. 15, and an Allegheny County jury hung on five lesser charges of recklessly endangering another person, resisting arrest and escape. It’s those charges the district attorney’s office decided to not retry.
The incident that left Mr. Ford paralyzed started when three Pittsburgh officers pulled him over in Highland Park on Nov. 11, 2012. They thought he was another man who was wanted, although Mr. Ford produced identification.
The officers testified at trial they asked Mr. Ford to get out of his car but he refused, and Officer David Derbish got inside the car. The car slipped into gear, and Officer Derbish fired five shots, paralyzing Mr. Ford.
Officer Derbish has been placed on desk duty while the U.S. Department of Justice investigates, Chief Cameron McLay said in December.
That review was also among Mr. Zappala’s reasons for not retrying Mr. Ford.
“That members of our community who have raised issues concerning police training and tactics will have a fair and thorough analysis of those issues by the United States Justice Department,” he said.
Mr. Zappala also said that Mr. Ford was acquitted by the jury of assault against officers so he cannot be retried on those issues, and now-retired Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen found the traffic stop was legal, which was the matter appealed by Mr. Ford, taking jurisdiction away from the trial court.
Mr. Zappala said the fact that Mr. Ford was injured in the crash would probably serve as a deterrent to future similar conduct.
Mr. Ford’s attorney, Fred Rabner, said: “We’re very happy for Leon Ford and his family. Now he can focus on getting well. The decision to withdraw the remaining charges is a small step in the right direction. But we have many steps to take before we will have true justice for Leon.”
Brandi Fisher, chairwoman of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said she’s happy Mr. Ford won’t have to “endure any more victimization though our legal justice system,” but she said Mr. Zappala’s assessment that the injuries Mr. Ford suffered would serve as a deterrent incorrectly places blame on Mr. Ford.
“The way I understand it is that he’s saying the fact that he’s paralyzed should deter anyone in the future from fleeing,” Ms. Fisher said.
She said she wishes instead that his tone would have shifted the responsibility to police, who can prevent near-death incidents by following procedure.
Chief McLay said in an emailed statement that he empathized with the difficult decision Mr. Zappala had to make.
“The District Attorney, by design, must function and make decisions independently from the police leadership. I have the utmost respect in the prosecutorial judgment of our District Attorney,” the chief said.
“The decision to not refile charges is in no way related to the extent to which our officers’ use of force was consistent with constitutional standards. The USDOJ examination will now serve to evaluate whether the civil rights of Mr. Ford were violated. Until such time, it would inappropriate for me to comment further.”
Rallies have been held in support of Mr. Ford, who has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city since his September trial.
Upon learning of the district attorney’s decision, Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said, “Hooray, hooray, hooray.”
Mr. Zappala’s decision is one of several efforts to improve the relationship between police and the community, she said, calling his decision very wise and appropriate.
“The community-police relations are so strained, and a lot was around the ambiguity of his case. This is great,” Ms. Pittinger said.
Although the decision was delayed by months, she said she doesn’t think it’s ever too late for charges to be withdrawn. This was a favorable, long-awaited outcome for Mr. Ford, she said.