After shooting Leon Ford five times after a botched traffic stop, Pittsburgh police Officer David Derbish filed felony aggravated assault charges against the now paralyzed 21-year-old.
A jury acquitted Ford of the assault charges Sept. 15 after several days of deliberations that included the dismissal of one juror and the empanelling of an alternate.
The jury, however, deadlocked on misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering Derbish and officers Michael Kosko and Andrew Miller, as well as resisting arrest and attempted escape.
Beyond saying, “we’re blessed’ as they left the Allegheny County Courthouse, neither Ford nor his attorneys could comment on the victory due to a gag order issued by Common Pleas Judge Donald Machen. It remains in effect because the district attorney’s office can still seek a retrial on the lesser charges.
Mike Manko, spokesman for DA Stephen Zappala said no decision has been made on whether or not to re-file. Machen found Ford guilty of summary traffic offenses—failing to yield and careless driving.
NAACP Pittsburgh Unit President Connie Parker said the jury made the right decision in the Ford case.
“It took the jury a long time to decide so I was concerned, but I’m glad they came to the right decision on the felony charge,” she said. “But it never should have gone that far. Our DA should not have prosecuted him after what those officers did.”
Ford, of Shaler, was pulled over near Stanton Avenue and Farragut Street in Highland Park Nov. 11, 2012 when officers mistakenly identified him as wanted felon Lamont Ford. Despite his producing the proper ID, officers did not let him go. They eventually tried to physically pull him from his car. Ford resisted, even after Derbish climbed into the passenger side door and tried to loosen his grip. During the struggle the car shifted into gear. Within seconds Derbish shot Ford.
Ultimately, the jury agreed with the defense that everything leading to the shooting—and the charged assault—was the fault of overzealous officers, which was backed up by an internal police investigation.
The Critical Incident Review Board report, introduced by the defense, stated the officers violated multiple procedures during Ford’s traffic stop.
“We believe the entire incident could have been avoided had the officers followed training and protocol,” the board wrote.
Black Political Empowerment Project Chair Tim Stevens, who observed most of the trial, said he was heartened to hear the verdict and wrote Zappala, urging him not to re-file the misdemeanor charges.
“In light of the passions that this case has engendered, particularly within the African-American community, we strongly urge you to stay with your initial orientation and to NOT recharge Leon Ford,” Stevens wrote. “We feel that the fact that Mr. Ford will never walk again is unto itself reason enough to not re-file the charges in this unfortunate incident. In addition, it is our opinion that re-trying this case is probably not in the financial interest of Allegheny County and the District Attorney’s Office.”
Ford has a federal civil rights case pending against the officers, two former chiefs and the city, which Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said will likely be settled in Ford’s favor.
“Usually an acquittal on criminal charges is helpful in a subsequent federal case. In this case, it was essential,” he said. “This case is peculiar in that the alleged assault was—from the officer’s standpoint–the basis for the excessive force. Had he lost, the officers could say in court that he assaulted three officers—it would have been unwinnable.”
Brandi Fisher, founder of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said she thinks people are beginning to accept the idea that police officers don’t always do the right thing.
“People may be noticing the pattern—White officers assault a Black man, after the fact say they ‘thought’ they saw what ‘could have been a weapon,’ no weapon found, charge the victim of the assault with a felony. They did it with Jordan Miles too,” she said. “So this could be a turning point for police to realize they can’t do whatever they want and get away with it.”
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