PITTSBURGH (AP) – A prosecutor contends a Black man shot and paralyzed by a White city officer had only himself to blame for the “choices and consequences” of driving away from a traffic stop, while a defense attorney contends the man was the victim of “undisciplined, overzealous officers” who wrongly confused him with a suspected gang member.
That’s what the attorneys told an Allegheny County jury Tuesday to open the criminal trial of the injured man, Leon Ford, 21.
The Millvale man was 19 when he was charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and resisting arrest stemming from the Nov. 11, 2012 incident.
Police contend Ford was wrongly trying to drive away from the traffic stop when Officer David Derbish, who was kneeling in the passenger seat of Ford’s car and trying to wrestle him out of the vehicle, shot Ford five times.
But defense attorney Fred Rabner argued his client was justifiably afraid after police confused Ford with a “known gang banger” with a similar appearance, the same age and a different first name: Lamont.
Rabner contends one of the officers whispered in Ford’s ear, as he lay handcuffed and bullet-riddled, saying “You better die” after failing to find a gun or drugs in the car.
The police said that “because they didn’t want to be in this courtroom where we get to tell our story,” Rabner said.
Derbish and fellow officers Michael Kosko and Andrew Miller, could wind up in court again if Ford’s federal civil rights lawsuit doesn’t settle.
The lawsuit depends largely on an internal police board that determined officers contributed to the shooting by not following proper procedures, though board members also said the shooting wouldn’t have occurred had Ford obeyed the officers.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Schupansky contends Ford was speeding and rolled through one or two stop signs.
“What you’re going to hear from that (witness) chair is a story about choices and consequences,” Schupansky said, reminding the jury the criminal case “is about what Leon Ford did, not what the officers did. That’s a separate matter.”
Rabner contends Ford pulled over immediately, was polite, and provided a valid driver’s license, registration and vehicle insurance to Kosko and Miller. Despite that, they suspected he was a gang member with a similar name so they called Derbish to the scene because he apparently had guarded the other man in a hospital the year before in an unrelated case.
A dashboard camera captured the brief pursuit and traffic stop, but the officers who pulled over Leon Ford didn’t activate audio recorders on their lapels, nor did Derbish, who also didn’t use his dash camera when he arrived.
Rabner contends the officers did that – in violation of police policies – to hide their give-and-take about Ford’s identity, and compounded matters when they wrongly ordered Ford out of the car only to have Derbish crawl into the still-running vehicle.
“You get your Black (expletive) out of the car if I tell you to get your Black (expletive) out of the car,” Rabner told the jury, quoting one of the officers.
The defense attorney didn’t dispute that Ford resisted, but said that was reasonable after the officers unreasonably refused to believe Ford’s true identity.
“He’s doing everything he can to stay in the car, damn right,” Rabner said.