Juror: Sloppy investigation led to verdict in Kuzak case
Clairton police Officer James Kuzak tears up while speaking to supporters in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse on Friday.
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The verdict delivered by a jury of 10 women and two men in the shooting of James Kuzak was devastating on a personal level for the Clairton police officer and his family.
Paralyzed from the waist down after being shot April 4, 2011, Officer Kuzak was left with little satisfaction after a grueling trial as one of the men charged in his attack went free Thursday, and the other was found guilty of robbery, but not for firing into the man's body three times.
"I would love to give [Officer Kuzak] the world for all the hardships he's suffered," said one of the jurors in the case. "But we couldn't."
Interviewed Friday afternoon, a female juror, who asked that her name not be used, said there was no way for the jurors to give Officer Kuzak justice based on the case that was presented.
"I thought the prosecution did a very poor job," she said. "I think they dropped the ball on their investigation. A lot of things you'd think they should have done, they didn't do."
She questioned the way the crime scene was processed -- in terms of looking for DNA and fingerprints.
She wondered why a better effort wasn't made to try to find the weapon used to shoot Officer Kuzak and questioned why the investigators didn't more thoroughly check alibis offered in the case.
The juror said the blame could be spread widely -- from crime scene technicians to the Allegheny County homicide detectives who led the investigation. "There was more than one party, I think, that was at fault."
Police Superintendent Charles Moffatt did not return calls seeking comment.
Mike Manko, a spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said the case would remain an open, ongoing investigation since no one has been convicted of the shooting. On Friday, Mr. Zappala met with the case's lead prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Daniel Fitzsimmons, to discuss the trial and what follow-up might be necessary.
Mr. Manko said his office would not comment on how the investigation was conducted but did say they knew from the outset that certain issues would be exploited by the defense.
Officer Kuzak, who was recognized at a rally by his supporters Friday in the courtyard, said he was dejected by the verdict but not discouraged.
"To see everyone here with us today, I can't feel anything but great," Mr. Kuzak told the group gathered around him. "We trusted the system when I was working, we have no other choice but to trust it again."
He will meet with county detectives as soon as next week to discuss how to proceed.
"I have full belief that they will do as good a job as they already have," Officer Kuzak said. "I'm sure every one of the detectives involved in this case was as dejected as I was when they heard that verdict."
Officer Kuzak expressed happiness for Marcus Andrejco's family that they had their son back and said he was glad the jury recognized Emilio Rivera took part in the home invasion.
He believes Mr. Rivera knows who shot him.
The juror interviewed said that from the outset of deliberations, the panel felt strongly that Mr. Andrejco, 19, of Rankin was innocent. "There was a lack of evidence that placed him in that house," she said.
Although he gave a confession, the jurors felt it might have been coerced. She called the details of it "rehearsed and methodical."
As for Mr. Rivera -- who was found guilty of multiple counts of robbery, reckless endangerment and unlawful restraint -- the juror said she had a gut feeling he was likely involved in the shooting and sexual assault of the female resident in the house.
"There wasn't evidence there to prove that all happened," she said. "If the evidence would have been stronger -- or even present -- our verdict would have been much different, and he would have been guilty on more counts."
University of Pittsburgh law professor David A. Harris said it's disappointing when a case ends up like this one did.
"The police officer deserves justice. He deserves to have an investigation done thoroughly, fairly and to a standard he expects," he said. "No investigation is going to be perfect.
"What's really disappointing is when the courts work as they're supposed to, and the jury takes its job seriously, but the evidence brought to them is weak -- and unnecessarily so because pieces of the investigation were handled in a haphazard way."
There was a sign early in the trial that the prosecution could be in trouble when the female victim from the Miller Avenue home testified. Through the investigation and trial, she identified at least five different men as the two attackers.
Most courtroom observers and participants in the trial agreed the woman wasn't purposely lying, but based on the trauma of the event she couldn't clearly identify the men.
"That's a weakness in the case that you can't help," Mr. Harris said. "When the evidence in a case is weak because of the way it was investigated, that's a problem."
The juror questioned, too, how a case involving a fellow officer would be handled in such a way. "It scares me because this was an officer critically wounded in a home invasion," the juror said. "I thought they would do the investigation so thoroughly because he was one of their own.
"He was an officer, and it wasn't done well for him. Surely, it wouldn't be done well for just a normal citizen."
Mr. Harris expressed concern over those feelings.
"What this did, in the eyes of this juror, is to shake her confidence in law enforcement and investigators," he said. "I don't think that that juror is going to forget that lesson.
"It's very unfortunate."
For Clairton police Chief Robert Hoffman, he is still shocked by the verdict.
"How something can be so evident and obvious, that you can't get the verdict you think is clear," he said. "I just don't completely agree with it."
Chief Hoffman said he has a close relationship with county homicide detectives.
"I'm sure these guys tried the best that they could," he said. "Unless I'm involved in the investigation, it's not fair for me to judge."
Still, he said, he will attempt to lead his department through this difficult time.
"This wouldn't be my first disappointing moment in law enforcement," he said. "This gives confidence to every criminal out there."
During his closing argument, Paul Gettleman, who represented Mr. Rivera, told the jurors it would take courage to reach a not guilty verdict.
The juror agreed.
"It was very difficult setting aside everything that happened to Officer Kuzak and only going by the evidence and testimony presented to us," the juror said. "Taking out that human element was very difficult."
She referenced closing arguments by Mr. Andrejco's defense attorney, Ralph Karsh, who told the jurors that Officer Kuzak should be furious at the shoddy investigation in the case.
"He should be furious," the juror said. "Now he has that pain in his heart that the people who were supposed to be there for him weren't there at all."
First Published August 18, 2012 12:00 am