Pittsburgh police shooting case unfolds

Attorney seeks to throw out charges against man paralyzed in traffic stop

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The defense attorney for a man who was shot and paralyzed by a Pittsburgh police officer last year as he fled a traffic stop asked a judge Wednesday to throw out charges of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, claiming that the prosecution failed to prove intent.

Leon Ford Jr., 20, was pulled over for speeding Nov. 11 in Highland Park. After he provided officers his driver's license and registration, they questioned whether the man they stopped was actually Lamont Ford, whom they knew from previous police interactions.

During the nearly 20-minute traffic stop, police car video and audio surveillance revealed officers debating about the subject's identity.

Police dashboard video of traffic stop, shooting

This is video from the police car dashboard camera that captured the traffic stop and then shooting of Leon Ford. (10/17/2013)

Near the end of the video, which was played for Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen, the officers ordered Mr. Ford out of the vehicle. He refused, and from the driver's side, an officer can be seen tugging on his arm, and another officer, David Derbish, can then be seen climbing inside the front, passenger side of the car.

The car can then be seen being shifted into gear and pulling quickly away from the curb.

Within three seconds, five shots can be heard.

Mr. Ford, who had no previous criminal history and had no weapons or contraband in the car, was paralyzed.

His defense attorney, Fred Rabner, told Judge Machen that the officers involved in the traffic stop violated a number of police procedures, including: not requiring Mr. Ford to turn the vehicle off; not running his driver's license information -- they instead entered only the name "L. Ford" into a criminal database; not drawing their weapons and ordering him out of the car; and Officer Derbish entering the passenger compartment of the vehicle.

But Judge Machen dismissed those factors.

"You're arguing about perfect police procedure," he said. "What difference does that mean to criminal charges? That's a red herring. I don't care about that.

"The testimony is, they ordered him out, and he refused to come out."

Mr. Rabner responded that to prove either crime, the police need to show Mr. Ford's behavior was "intentional or reckless," and instead he argued that his client was responding to an escalating, fluid situation.

But Judge Machen disagreed. "As far as that goes, he escalated it," he said.

Assistant District Attorney Rob Schupansky, who asked to amend the charges to include one for escape, said Mr. Rabner's argument about violations of police procedure certainly could apply to a civil claim, but are not relevant in the criminal case.

"An officer can ask someone to step out of the vehicle for any reason at all in a traffic stop," he said. "The tragic circumstances were brought about by [Mr. Ford's] actions."

In September, Mr. Ford filed a federal lawsuit against the city, police officers and former and current chief, alleging excessive force, unreasonable search and seizure and due process violations.

In the criminal case, Judge Machen gave both sides two months to file briefs on the issue.

"Our story will come out, and when it does, it will be devastating for the prosecution," Mr. Rabner said later.

Before the proceeding, several people, some wearing "Justice4Leon" T-shirts, gathered away from the rain under the shelter of the City-County Building to show support for Mr. Ford.

Mr. Rabner was joined by attorney Benjamin Crump, who represented the Trayvon Martin family during the George Zimmerman trial this summer.

"It defies common sense the arguments and positions they're making," Mr. Crump said.

Mr. Ford's parents, Leon Ford Sr. and Latonya Green, who have initiated an online petition urging the DA's office to drop the charges, attended the rally, along with Mr. Ford's infant.

"We are standing up for Leon because the Pittsburgh police paralyzed my son and now he cannot stand up for himself, and will never walk again," Ms. Green said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated what was on T-shirts worn by some supporters at a rally for Leon Ford. The T-shirts said "Justice4Leon." (Published Oct. 17, 2013)

neigh_city - breaking

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. Molly Born contributed. First Published October 16, 2013 11:32 AM


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