Protests erupt across city after Rosfeld trial

Protesters demand justice for Antwon Rose

Written By Andrew Brinker and Jordyn Hronec

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All eyes were on the Allegheny County Courthouse this week – not just those in the city of Pittsburgh, or in the state of Pennsylvania, but those all over the United States.

 

THE SHOOTING

On June 19, Antwon Rose II, a 17-year-old black high school student, was shot and killed by former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld, a 30-year-old white man, during a traffic stop. Approximately 10 minutes beforehand, the Chevrolet Cruze that Rose was riding in was involved in a drive-by shooting in North Braddock.

Rosfeld was responding to reports of the shooting when he saw the Chevy Cruze with its back window blown out and bullet holes in the body of the car. Rosfeld determined that it matched the description of the vehicle he was searching for. The former officer immediately pulled the car over, stopping it in front of a senior center.

Rosfeld quickly jumped out of his patrol car with his gun drawn, ordering the driver of the Chevy Cruze to shut off the vehicle, throw the keys out of the window, and open the car using the outside door handle. Rosfeld then ordered the driver out of the car with his hands up and onto the ground. The driver complied with all commands given to him by the former officer.

While Rosfeld was arresting the driver, Rose, who was riding in the front passenger’s seat, and the backseat passenger, Zaijuan Hester, both attempted to run from the car. Rosfeld fired three shots in their direction as they ran, striking Rose in the elbow, face and back. Hester was not struck by any of the shots and managed to escape. The officer then continued arresting the driver. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that Rose was discovered injured on the ground struggling to breath. The 17-year-old died in the hospital that night.

At the time, Rosfeld stated that the reason that he fired his weapon was because he believed that he had seen a gun in one of the fleeing teenager’s hand. But neither of the two passengers had anything in their hands when fleeing the vehicle. Multiple witnesses captured the incident on video, providing investigators and eventually, twelve jurors, with compelling evidence. It was later revealed through surveillance footage that it was the backseat passenger, Hester, who had fired shots from the Chevy Cruze, 10 minutes prior to the incident in North Braddock. Hester confirmed what the footage showed, when he testified in a trial for the drive-by shooting that he alone had shot a gun from the vehicle, stating that Rose did not fire a weapon. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala reported that an empty magazine for a nine-millimeter handgun was found in Rose’s pocket, and that two guns were recovered from the vehicle. Rosfeld was initially charged with homicide.

The trial for Michael Rosfeld began on Tuesday, March 19. The judge in the case, Alexander Bicket, told the jury before the trial to prepare for seven to 10 days of trial and deliberations. But, after the defense rested before noon on Friday following just their second witness, the case wrapped up and was given to the jury after four days. In three and a half hours, the jury, which was made up of black and white residents of Dauphin County near Harrisburg, reached a verdict. On Friday night, Rosfeld was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Antwon Rose.

 

OPENING STATEMENTS

Day one of the Rosfeld trial began outside of the Allegheny County Courthouse with an intense police presence, as the streets surrounding the historic building were closed off to all traffic in anticipation of demonstrations. But, after a call for peace during the trial by Antwon Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, it appeared as though the additional security was far from necessary, as the only organizers in sight were the Pittsburgh Jewish community hanging purple roses in honor of the 17-year-old, and a small group displaying a memorial. Inside of the courthouse, however, was a different story, as the trial officially began with intense opening statements.

Allegheny County Chief Trial Deputy District Attorney, Dan Fitzsimmons, presented the prosecution’s opening statement,which focused on the innocence of  Rose, telling the jury that the 17-year-old running from the car posed no threat to Rosfeld. Fitzsimmons made it emphatically clear that the decision in the case would ultimately come down to exactly what Rosfeld knew when he fired his gun in Rose’s direction.

The former officer’s defense attorney, Patrick Thomassey, spent most of his opening statement explaining to the jury the role and duties of law enforcement officers. Thomassey explained that being a police officer requires split-second decision-making, and that Rosfeld has no intention of killing someone when he woke up that morning. The defense attorney, echoing what the prosecution had argued moments before, ended his statement by emphasizing the importance of what Rosfeld knew at the time of the incident, and told the courtroom that his client was in no way a criminal.

 

THE PROSECUTION

The prosecution began building their case against Rosfeld early, slowly constructing an emphasis on Rosfeld’s mishandlings and malice in managing the incident with Rose. Six witnesses were called to the stand on the first day, including a pathologist who conducted Rose’s autopsy, a police officer from North Braddock, two detectives who had visited the scene of the incident and two neighbors who witnessed the shooting of Rose. The first witness, Debra Jones, testified that she heard Rosfeld ordering the driver of the Chevy Cruze out of the car in a harsh manner. Once she saw the two passengers run from the car she said Rosfeld’s response was instantaneous. “Automatically, ‘boom boom boom’ three shots,” she said.

Lashaun Livingston, who took a video of the incident, also testified on Tuesday, telling the courtroom that she didn’t see any sort of gesture or weapon from either of the passengers, which Rosfeld told investigators he saw.

On Wednesday, another witness, John Leach, testified that he heard Rosfeld after shooting Rose saying “I don’t know why I shot him.” Leach additionally told the jury that the former officer appeared to be distressed and crying after the incident, and that it appeared as though he was about to collapse.

Daniel Wolfe, a crime lab analyst, also testified on Wednesday, after multiple police officers who responded to the incident and East Pittsburgh Mayor Louis Payne. Wolfe told the courtroom that he found some evidence of gunshot particles on Rose’s hand, and said that there were multiple potential explanations for the residue, saying that it did not necessarily mean that he had fired a gun.

After testimony from two weapons experts on Thursday morning, which included an in-depth look at both of the weapons found in the Chevy Cruze, the prosecution rested its case.

THE DEFENSE

The defense took over the Rosfeld trial just after lunch on Thursday, calling a witness that many speculated wouldn’t testify during the course of the proceedings: Michael Rosfeld. Rose’s mother left the courtroom during his 90 minute testimony. The former East Pittsburgh police officer appeared nervous, as on multiple occasions he was stopped for speaking too quickly. Rosfeld told the jury that he believed he saw a gun in the hand of one of the teenagers who fled from the car. “One of the suspects turned and pointed toward me with what I thought was a handgun,” he said.

Rosfeld later stood and demonstrated the gesture that he saw, fully extending his arm straight out from his chest. He told Fitzsimmons during cross-examination that he shot at Rose to protect himself and the community. The only other witness called by the defense, was former state police officer and use of force expert, Clifford Jobe, who told the courtroom that he found nothing wrong with the way Rosfeld conducted the traffic stop. “It was pretty much a textbook operation,” he said. “I don’t know that he did anything wrong at all.”

Jobe additionally testified that if an officer believes that they are in danger, it is in accordance with their training to use deadly force. Before noon on Friday, Jobe’s testimony had concluded and the defense rested its case.

CLOSING STATEMENTS

After an hour and a half of delay, closing statements began on Friday afternoon with an impassioned statement from Thomassey. “Did Michael Rosfeld wake up on June 19 and decide he was going to kill somebody? No,” he said. After wielding the guns recovered from the Chevy Cruze and citing witness testimonies that didn’t line up, Thomassey concluded that Rosfeld’s actions were justified under Pennsylvania state law and that ultimately, he should be acquitted of all charges.

Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney, Jonathan Fodi, contradicted Thomassey in nearly every way in his closing statement – even in demeanor. In a more leveled voice, Fodi told the jury that Rosfeld assumed too much when pulling over the vehicle and firing at Rose, while citing his lack of commands to the passengers of the vehicle as reckless.

“Everything Michael Rosfeld did on June 19 made the situation more dangerous,” he said. Fodi concluded that if Rosfeld has not fired his weapon at the fleeing teenagers, Rose would have eventually been apprehended, just as Hester was. “That’s not how the justice system works,” he said. “We don’t shoot first and ask questions later.”

 

THE VERDICT

After three and a half hours of deliberations between the 12 members of the jury, a unanimous decision was reached that was required for a verdict. With dozens of police officers surrounding the courthouse, inside and out, the jury foreman read the following verdict: First-degree murder – not guilty. Third-degree murder – not guilty. Voluntary manslaughter – not guilty. Involuntary manslaughter – not guilty.

Shortly after the verdict was read, a song could be heard from outside the courthouse, growing louder as a crowd of courtroom spectators made their way to the exit of the building. “What side are you on my people? What side are you on?” they sang. They continued, chanting and at one point stopping to quote the poetry of Rose. “I am confused and afraid.”

 

ON CAMPUS

The effects of the trials were felt on Point Park’s campus, both in the form of protest as well as mourning.

On Monday, March 25, a student walk-out protest was arranged by the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Students from Point Park, as well as other colleges and high schools in Pittsburgh, gathered in front of the City-County Building at 12 p.m. According to Kait Regulbuto, a sophomore english major, there were 1,300 students in attendance.

Regulbuto also attended the trial at the courthouse on Tuesday, March 19. According to Regulbuto, she was able to pray with Rose’s family before the trial began. Regulbuto is also a member of the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) on campus, an organization that held a prayer and mourning service for Rose on Monday.

Mya Jackson, a freshman cinema production major, was classmates with Rose at Woodland Hills High School. According to Jackson, the loss of her friend never gets easier.

“It was just like, that was someone that I did talk to, I saw him in the hallway daily, we had classes together,” Jackson said. “So, to know that he’s not around anymore, even if we didn’t hang out outside of school, I would see him, maybe at the mall or maybe on his side of town, like visiting his friends…I’d see him around. And now that he’s not there anymore…it’s sad. Because even if I see a closer friend of his or maybe a family member, it’s like, he’s not there. So it’s always going to be a sad feeling.”

According to Jackson, her community has felt lasting effects of the incident.

“We’re all cautious,” Jackson said. “Some people will react…just avoid it, is kind of what I do personally. Just try to be respectful, walk away, turn the other direction…which is also kind of sad, like I shouldn’t be like ‘Hey let’s walk the other way cause there’s cops coming here,’ like it shouldn’t be like that, like you should be able to just be like ‘Hey officer, like we’re chilling’ but like, you just never know, so we just leave.”

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