Civil lawsuits, federal charges could await Rosfeld after acquittal – Tarentum Valley News Dispatch

Michael Rosfeld could end up back in court despite a jury’s not guilty verdict.

The former East Pittsburgh police officer was acquitted of state charges Friday in the shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II. But Rosfeld already faces a civil federal lawsuit brought by Rose’s family and could face federal civil rights charges and additional civil lawsuits.

Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, said at minimum, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh will review the evidence used in the state’s case against Rosfeld to determine whether the former officer violated Rose’s civil rights.

“Whether or not they will decide to do anything about it, there’s no way of knowing,” Antkowiak said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh could not be reached Saturday.

Rosfeld shot 17-year-old Rose on June 19 as he ran from a felony traffic stop. Rosfeld had stopped the car in which Rose was a passenger because he thought it matched the description of a car suspected in a drive-by shooting minutes earlier.

It isn’t unheard of for a police officer who’s been cleared by the state court to be convicted on federal civil rights charges of excessive force, Antkowiak said.

It happened in the case involving Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991. The four police officers on trial weren’t convicted on state charges but two were found guilty on federal charges.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said this month they will review evidence in the Sacramento police shooting of Stephon Clark after local prosecutors declined to press charges. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Sacramento said such reviews are standard practice.

Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh decided not to press charges against the undercover Pittsburgh police officers involved in a brawl with members of the Pagans motorcycle club at a South Side bar last year.


Demonstrators march through Pittsburgh day after Rosfeld found not guilty

Civil lawsuits pending

Rose’s parents — Michelle Kenney and Antwon Rose Sr. — filed a federal civil lawsuit in August against Rosfeld, East Pittsburgh, its police chief and mayor. The lawsuit alleges that Rose’s civil rights were violated, that Rosfeld’s actions were unlawful and unwarranted and that the lack of training and practices at the East Pittsburgh Police Department caused, in part, the teen’s death.

The mayor, council and police chief knew of Rosfeld’s “erratic behavior and lack of training,” the lawsuit alleges, but failed to vet the new officer.

Rosfeld was sworn in as an East Pittsburgh Police officer the same night he shot and killed Rose. He had worked at other area departments before East Pittsburgh, including the University of Pittsburgh Police Department, as a part-time officer for Oakmont from 2011 to 2013 and as a part-timer for Harmar about five years ago.

“Make no mistake, there is nothing reasonable or appropriate about the manner Officer Rosfeld took Antwon’s life, and we will unequivocally prove that in Federal Court,” Fred Rabner, an attorney for Rose’s family, said.

Rabner and his legal team filed a motion Saturday asking the federal court to lift a stay on the civil lawsuit put in place while the criminal case unfolded. Rosfeld’s attorney in the civil lawsuit could not be reached Saturday.

Rose’s parents filed a lawsuit in county court late last year against the University of Pittsburgh, contending the university is partially responsible for their son’s death by not firing Rosfeld when he worked for campus police between 2012 and early 2018. The university has argued it is not responsible.

S. Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who was by the Rose family’s side throughout the trial, made it clear after the verdict Friday that family is moving ahead with its civil suit.

“We will also focus our efforts on holding those accountable for Antwon’s death through our civil suit,” Merritt said. “The fight for justice is never easy, but we will make every effort to protect the memory and legacy of Antwon Rose.”

The outcome in civil court could be different than criminal court because the burden of proof is different. In criminal court, juries must find proof of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, Antkowiak said. In civil court, the burden of proof is a preponderance of evidence.

Experts: Juries often side with police

The jury appeared to believe Rosfeld’s testimony that he felt threatened as two teens ran from him, legal experts told the Tribune-Review hours after a jury acquitted the former police officer. Antkowiak called his testimony a “significant factor” in the acquittal.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris agreed. In use-of-force cases involving police, a jury is tasked with deciding if Rosfeld has a “reasonable” fear for his safety and his life, Harris said.

“Under the law, he doesn’t have to be correct, only reasonable,” Harris said. “The jury believed Rosfeld’s claim that he was reasonable in fear for his safety and his life.”

Harris said the speed of the verdict indicated the jury didn’t have a problem reaching that conclusion.

“If there was any reason to find him guilty, the debate would have gone on much longer,” Harris said.

The not guilty verdict did not surprise Antkowiak or Harris.

Convictions are not common among cases involving police facing similar charges nationally.

“Juries have a very difficult time putting themselves in a position to second guess a police officer,” Antkowiak said.

Regardless of the verdict, “it’s a no-win situation for anybody,” Antkowiak said.

Rose was one of nearly 1,000 Americans, both black and white, who died last year after being shot by police. Rosfeld was one of just 98 police officers charged with homicide in such deaths over the past 14 years. While charges against officers in such shootings are rare, convictions are even rarer. Of the 98 officers charged, three were convicted of murder; 32 others were found guilty of manslaughter or lesser crimes.

Rose was shot three times as he ran. The shooting was captured on video by witnesses.

Harris, however, said this case is another example of how videos do not tell the whole story.

He cited the 2015 North Charleston, S.C., shooting of Walter Scott, who was running away from a police officer who fired eight times that was also captured on video and resulted in a hung jury.

“The video only tells part of the story,” Harris said. “People need to understand that what they see in a video is not enough to prove a case.”

It also points to weaknesses in the law as it applies to law enforcement officers in these cases.

“The law as it stands is not really adequate to address these sorts of problems,” Harris said. “A jury has to judge the actions of a police officer under a standard of whether his actions were objectively reasonable.”

The jury doesn’t get to use hindsight or personal experience to look at the officer’s actions, Harris said. Instead, they should try to view a case “through the eyes of a reasonably objective police officer.”

With that as the standard and with most juries looking at police as the good guys, “it’s quite rare to see the conviction of a police officer even with good evidence,” Harris said.

Merritt said after the verdict that laws need to be changed and that he and the family would work toward that.

“Although the facts of the case seemed clear cut, namely that Antwon Rose was shot in the back as he ran from officer Rosfeld; the jury’s verdict was heavily influenced by flaws in current Pennsylvania law that contradict protections afforded citizens by the U.S. Constitution,” Merritt said in a statement released after the verdict. “Antwon’s family and I will be working to change those laws in an effort to prevent other families from suffering a similar disappointment.”

Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, or via Twitter .


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