CP Jail Watch: After six years in jail, man demands access to potentially exonerating video | Social Justice | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

CP Jail Watch: After six years in jail, man demands access to potentially exonerating video

click to enlarge CP Jail Watch: After six years in jail, man demands access to potentially exonerating video
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Allegheny County Jail

One of Allegheny County Jail’s longest-detained incarcerated individuals says that after six years in the county jail waiting for trial, he still hasn’t been allowed to review evidence he believes would exonerate him.

Last week marked six years of pre-trial confinement in the Allegheny County Jail for Todd Robinson, who was arrested in 2017 after being shot by Wilkinsburg police officers in a McDonald’s parking lot.

In a contested series of events first outlined in an investigation by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, Wilkinsburg Police Sergeant Matthew Morrison and Officer Chris Duncan say they first encountered Robinson sleeping in his car in a Wilkinsburg alley in the early morning of April 27, 2017. According to Morrison and Duncan’s statements, they woke him up and asked for his identification. After calling dispatch with Robinson’s information, they say they were informed he had “no wants, no warrants.” They gave Robinson a parking ticket for being parked in an alley and told him he was free to go.

A few minutes later, according to a district attorney's report, dispatch called back, telling Morrison and Duncan that Robinson actually had a parole violation. Robinson had recently been paroled from prison after serving 20 years for a homicide he was convicted of as a juvenile and had left the halfway house where he was supposed to be staying two weeks earlier.

"[Morrison] also learn through the dispatch that Robinson had violent tendencies towards police officers, was an escape risk, abused drugs for armed robbery and homicide on his criminal history," according to the DA report.

The officers say they split up to look for Robinson to take him into custody, ultimately spotting his car in a McDonald’s parking lot on Penn Avenue. Robinson was inside buying coffee. They pulled their cruisers over behind Robinson’s car, blocking him in, and decided to wait for him to leave the restaurant.

When Robinson exited the restaurant and got into his car, Morrison and Duncan said they each approached one side of the vehicle and Morrison drew his weapon. Robinson said Duncan shouted at him and reached for his weapon, which led Robinson to fear for his life.

“[Duncan] said ‘Motherf⁠—r’ and he reached for his firearm,” Robinson told PINJ. “That’s what made me do what I did,” Robinson said. He put his car in reverse and hit the police car behind him, which he says he hadn’t realized was there, in an attempt to leave the parking lot.

Both Morrison and Duncan fired their guns into the car, wounding Robinson. They say they, too, "feared for their lives," according to their criminal complaint, because Robinson “nearly [struck] them” with his car. Robinson drove away, bleeding heavily, and crashed near the Family Dollar at Penn and Brushton Avenues, where Duncan and Morrison arrested him, later charging him with aggravated assault on an officer and reckless endangerment, along with other violations.

The Allegheny County Police say McDonald’s security cameras captured the incident. Robinson believes that this footage would not only exonerate him from the charges but would also incriminate the law enforcement who shot him.

The county police analysis of the security footage filed with the court does not describe the 16 seconds of surveillance video between when the police approach Robinson and when Robinson drives away. Robinson believes those 16 seconds of video footage would prove that the police officers were not standing in the path of Robinson’s vehicle, showing that neither of them was in danger of being hit by his car and that they shot him unprovoked. He has not yet been shown the footage.

Robinson has had 12 trial dates on his docket since November 2017, but his trial has not yet occurred. According to court filings, Robinson’s defense attorneys (he’s now on his third) have filed several motions to postpone his trial date.

Robinson tells City Paper in an email that he has been “extremely clear” with his lawyers “that I would not consent to trial until they gave me the McDonald’s surveillance video.”

He says that Thomas Farrell, his current court-appointed lawyer, hasn’t contacted him since July 2022 and has refused to show him the surveillance footage, which Farrell has allegedly had in his possession since May 2022.

Farrell declined to comment on Robinson’s case.

Although the District Attorney’s office has offered Robinson two different plea deals that would have allowed him to go free, he has refused both, saying he will not plead guilty to something he didn’t do.

Walter Harris, a volunteer for the Western PA Participatory Defense Hub, a community group that supports individuals and families going through the criminal legal system, tells City Paper he’s been following Robinson’s case since the fall of 2021.

Harris says he doesn’t understand why, if the footage corroborates the police officers’ account of the incident, Robinson hasn’t been allowed to see it.

“If there's a video that shows what happened, then give it to him and admit it into court, because then you show the video, and [if] it shows that what the police said is the truth, then he's convicted. I'm sure if that video showed what they said on the transcripts, what the cops testified to, he would have been through the system, he would have been convicted [already].”

Robinson agrees.

“Let the footage speak for itself,” he says in an email. “If I had been killed by those bullets, my name would ring out in the street. Instead, I survived and have been trapped behind bars in an attempt to muzzle my voice for almost 2,200 days. I am a survivor with a voice! With the presumption of innocence in pre-trial detention as my only shield, I've been defending my liberty. I've been patiently standing my ground awaiting the gathering of We the People to assist me with the guarantees of due process that balance the Scales of Justice,” he says.

A spokesperson for District Attorney Stephen Zappala did not respond to a request for comment.

Robinson's case is currently scheduled to go to trial on the morning of June 26.

JOB Meeting Rescheduled

This month’s Jail Oversight Board meeting has been rescheduled from Thu., May 4 to Thu., May 18 at 4 p.m. in the Gold Room of the County Courthouse. Public comments may be submitted here.

Other Jail News

A legal opinion from Frederick Frank, Allegheny County Council’s solicitor, presented by Bethany Hallam during the April 6 oversight board meeting suggests the jail is violating the county’s voter-approved referendum to limit the use of solitary confinement, WESA reports. Although Hallam says jail officials had previously claimed it doesn't count as solitary confinement if there's more than one person in the cell, Frank's opinion reportedly finds all incarcerees must receive at least four hours of out-of-cell time a day regardless of whether they’re sharing a cell with others.

County Controller and oversight board member Corey O’Connor proposed recommendations for new jail policies on notifying families of incarcerated individuals of death, illness, and injury. His proposals may be but up for vote at the next oversight board meeting.

An individual in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons died after jumping from the window of a county-funded substance use disorder treatment facility in Pittsburgh on April 17, PINJ reports. Although the Jail Oversight Board has statutory oversight over “all alternative housing facilities,” of which this facility is one, board member Bethany Hallam said on April 20 that the oversight board was not notified of the death. The Allegheny County Jail’s Twitter account was quick to note that the deceased individual had never been in their custody.

Solitary Confinement: March 2023 at the Allegheny County Jail

—The jail reports facility-wide lockdowns for a full day on March 7 and part of the day on March 14, and pod-level lockdowns for at least part of a day on 18 days in March, during which incarcerated individuals are confined in their cells for 20 hours or more.
—In addition to lockdowns, the jail reports placing more than 100 people in solitary confinement for 24 hours or longer in March 2023.
—The youngest person placed in solitary confinement during this time was 16 and the oldest was 65.

Source: Segregated housing report

—The number of people held at the Allegheny County Jail is up 14.7 percent since Jan. 1, 2023.

Source: Jail population dashboard

Who was in jail this month?

Average population of jail and alternative housing in April 2023: 1,739 individuals.

Gender: Most people in the jail are men. Women make up about 11% of the jail population. It’s unclear how many trans, nonbinary, and/or gender nonconforming people there are in the jail.

Race: 67% of people incarcerated at the jail this month were Black. Allegheny County as a whole is 13% Black.

Children: Thirty individuals under 18 are currently held in the jail, making up approximately 2% of its average daily population.

Senior citizens: One hundred eighty-four individuals over the age of 65 are currently held in the jail, making up 11% of its average daily population.

Source: Allegheny County Analytics.

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