Gun Shy | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Gun Shy

Even when Coroner Cyril Wecht hands him a full chamber of evidence, District Attorney Stephen Zappala is slow to pull the trigger on police deadly-force cases.

Like most people who end up shot dead by a police officer, Rodney Mathews made mistakes. But unlike many others who die at the hands of law enforcement, his death seems to stem from just an hour's worth of serious lapses of judgment -- perhaps on both sides.

Police say that in that hour, during which June 12 ended and June 13 began, a 23-year-old who'd led a fairly quiet life became a gun-wielding menace to his neighborhood and plugged one officer in the shoe. Mathews' family says that given another half hour, relatives could have coaxed Rodney off the roof of his apartment building and convinced him to turn himself in. Had they done so, Mathews might have been marching in manacles through the Allegheny County Courthouse right now. Instead he's gone, and his file is moving through a process that is supposed to bring what Coroner Cyril Wecht calls "sociological catharsis" to the community, but which has instead engendered frustration on all sides.

Wecht and District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. have considered 16 police deadly force cases since 1998.(See chart, '16 Bodies, One Year of Jail Time'.) Wecht has found probable cause to charge officers with homicide in five of those cases, has ruled a sixth too close to call, adjudged nine to be justifiable killings, and hasn't yet rendered a recommendation on the Mathews death. So far, Zappala has filed homicide charges in just two cases, resulting in one year of jail time.

Now, even as three controversial, racially charged cases march through the system, the tradition of cooperation between the coroner and the prosecutor has broken down. In one case, Zappala has still not announced a decision on whether to prosecute, nearly eight months after Wecht recommended homicide charges. Meanwhile, Zappala is widely considered a likely candidate for attorney general, the state's highest law enforcement office. With victims' families, police, the coroner and the prosecutor becoming seemingly more polarized with each passing case, politics and police accountability may be on a collision course.

The family
Rodney Mathews grew up on Perry Hilltop, the youngest of four children. "He was pretty good in school," says his mother, Willa Mae Mathews. But his academic career was derailed at age 17, when some other students at Oliver High School jumped him for wearing the wrong colors, says Willa Mae. The family got him transferred to Langley High, but he never graduated.

"So many of his friends went to jail or got killed," says Christine Mathews, Rodney's grandmother. Rodney was charged with trespassing in 2001, but the charge was withdrawn, and no other cases appear in the county court database. "He saw all of his friends just evaporating away, and he didn't want to be around that anymore."

So in 2002, Willa Mae moved the family into an apartment in Pittsburgh's Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood, just four doors from the house her mother Christine had occupied for 20 years. "I thought I'd brought him to a safe environment, because it's quiet around here," says Willa Mae of the area near the intersection of Woodland and California avenues. "All you hear is crickets and the train."

By that time, Rodney was receiving Social Security disability payments for what Willa Mae calls a "chemical imbalance" that was treated with medication. (The family was loath to provide medical details, and the coroner's file is not yet public.) Rodney wasn't slow or violent, his mother says, just sometimes confused or scared. He talked about getting his General Equivalency Diploma and a job, or spinning his hobby of writing rap songs into a career. But mostly he played video games, watched videos, listened to music, cooked, worked out and hung out with his girlfriend. He rarely left the area surrounding his mother's apartment and his grandmother's house, family members say. "He wanted to do something else besides going from here to there," says Willa Mae, as she sits in her mother's house and points toward her own home. He just never got around to it.

On June 12, just before midnight, Christine says she got a call from her grandson's downstairs neighbors, saying he was on the back porch, firing a gun into the air above the adjacent woods. She called his cell phone, and told him to stop whatever he was doing and come down to her house. He said he'd come. But before he could leave his house, police cars began pulling up. When his family members offered to talk Rodney down, Christine says, they were told to go inside and threatened with arrest.

On Oct. 2-3, Wecht held an inquest, a public tribunal at which evidence is presented and testimony taken from police, witnesses and investigators. The coroner has the power to subpoena people and documents for inquests, but some witnesses -- often including police in deadly-force cases -- invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to testify. The inquest ends not in a verdict, but in a non-binding recommendation by Wecht's office regarding whether charges should be filed against any party. Those recommendations are passed on to the District Attorney, who makes the final decision on filing charges.

At the Rodney Mathews inquest, police testified that the deceased fired on police, hitting Officer Michael Kirtley's shoe and bruising his foot. Eventually police stormed the house, and Rodney climbed out the window on to the awning roof. There are several apparent bullet holes in what was Rodney's bedroom. Witnesses at the inquest said there was a 20-minute lull in the shooting. Then, at 12:18 a.m., came the single shot from the rifle of Pittsburgh Police Officer George Ciganik that passed through Rodney's head. According to testimony, sharpshooter Ciganik got approval from two superiors who were not on the scene to take the shot.

Willa Mae got word of the standoff while she was working at an Oakland nursing home. It stunned her. "To my knowledge, there wasn't [a] gun in the house," she says. She rushed homeward. "I thought they should've waited until I got home," she says. "Fifteen minutes before I got here, they shot my son."

The police
In 36 years as a Pittsburgh police officer, Deputy Chief Charles Moffatt has never shot anyone. Now the department's second-in-command, Moffatt often oversees responses to incidents, including the Mathews shooting. "We wish we could go forever without a deadly force incident," says Moffatt. "But we recognize that's not going to happen."

Pittsburgh police have been involved in 7 of the county's 16 deadly-force incidents investigated since 1998. The Pittsburgh Housing Authority police were also involved in one of those seven deaths, plus two of their own. Suburban departments were involved in eight of the incidents, including one -- the Dec. 21 asphyxiation of Charles Dixon in Mount Oliver -- in which Pittsburgh police were also present. City Paper attempted to contact officers involved in several cases, but none returned calls.

The circumstances under which police are allowed to shoot people seem clear on paper. Pennsylvania law holds that an officer "is justified in using deadly force only when he believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or [another] person" or when someone escaping from an arrest attempt "has committed or attempted a forcible felony ... and possesses a deadly weapon, or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury unless arrested without delay." In 9 of the 16 cases, the deceased allegedly had fired upon, or was pointing a gun at, officers or bystanders.

But things aren't always that cut-and-dried in the field, says Joe Stine, a former Philadelphia Police Department inspector and suburban police chief who is now one of the country's foremost expert witnesses in police malfeasance cases. Stine remembers when he was a rookie cop patrolling a church carnival. Somebody said there was a fight going on in an unlit area, and he rushed into the crowd, shouting, "Break it up!" Suddenly, one of the combatants turned to face Stine, and light glinted off something shiny in his hand. "Do I wait until he squeezes the first shot off or stabs me?" Stine asks. He happened to have his baton in his hand, and struck the guy's arm, knocking the object to the ground. "If I'd have had my gun in my hand, I'd have shot him," Stine says. He's glad he didn't. The kid was 16. The object? "It turned out to be a comb."

Similarly, in the 1995 death of Jonny Gammage, suburban officers said they thought Gammage's cell phone was a weapon. He wasn't as lucky as Stine's combatant, and ended up asphyxiated. Three officers were tried, but none convicted.

Officers don't necessarily have to hold their fire until someone attacks them first, Moffatt argues. "You can't play by those rules," he says. "If you wait for them to fire first, it may be too late." Pittsburgh police are trained to follow a "continuum of force," says Moffatt, starting with the mere presence of an officer and escalating, as necessary, to the use of deadly force. The officer is authorized to go one level higher on the continuum than the actor. "If a person is trying to grab you in such a way that they want to attack you, you can use the pepper spray," he says. If somebody points a gun at an officer, that officer can use a gun on them.

That's what police say happened on Sept. 7, 2002, when they pursued 24-year-old suspected drug dealer Michael Hunter Jr. through Manchester. Officers testified at the coroner's inquest that Hunter pointed a gun at them, did not fire, but refused to drop his weapon. They fired as many as 19 times, hitting Hunter twice, and their police dog then attacked the dying man. Wecht said he had "a problem about the fact that 19 shots were fired" -- one even hit a bystander -- but said officers were justified in taking down an actor who seemed to threaten them. Zappala subsequently said he would not charge the officers.

On the rare occasions when police have been charged with homicide for actions taken in the course of duty, some officers have responded vehemently. In 1999, for instance, Pittsburgh Officer Jeffrey Cooperstein was charged with homicide in the 1998 shooting of Deron Grimmitt, a 32-year-old Hill District resident who was fleeing a traffic stop at high speed. Wecht and Zappala argued that the kill shot came through a side window of Grimmitt's car, indicating that Cooperstein fired as the vehicle passed, when it was no longer a threat to him. Some police said the prosecution was political. Cooperstein was a critic of Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly, they noted, while Zappala was fending off a primary election challenge and Wecht was running for county executive. "Coroner Cyril Wecht and District Attorney Stephen Zappala have given the news media and selective community groups a police officer instead of Barabbas," wrote Fraternal Order of Police Second Vice President Jack Linn, in a February 1999 letter referencing the Biblical thief who was freed on the day Jesus was sentenced to be crucified. "We are well aware that they both hope to make it through the May primary election while standing on the backs of police officers."

In 2000, Wecht recommended homicide charges against North Versailles Police Officer James Matrazzo in the death of William Stanley, of Beltzhoover (See 'Split Decision'). County Police Sgt. Lee Torbin, who had investigated the case for his department, wrote a letter to his union leadership calling Wecht's inquest an "obviously biased tribunal" and a "farcical process," the Post-Gazette reported. In Torbin's view, Wecht misinterpreted the testimony of another officer who was on the scene, named David Killian. Killian said he was not in danger from Stanley, who was unarmed but behind the wheel of a stolen car. Torbin wrote that Killian told him that while he wasn't in danger, other officers were.

Up until that time, Zappala had followed Wecht's lead on police deadly force cases. But in the Stanley case, Zappala opted not to file charges, marking the beginning of a shift in how deadly-force cases are handled that continues to this day.

The coroner
Wecht doesn't have to hold an open inquest every time a police officer kills someone, but he does. "We think it is the best possible form of, shall I say, sociological catharsis," Wecht says. "Given the fact that most of these, probably nine out of 10, involve an African-American person who has died and a white policeman, the best thing to do is have these things aired openly and fairly." (In 13 of the 16 cases considered since 1998, the deceased was black.)

The coroner's office is uniquely positioned to conduct a fair investigation of deadly force cases, Wecht says. "We're not an arm of the prosecution or the police. We're a medical and public health ombudsman for the community." That said, he knows he's "stepping on a landmine" every time he opens an inquest. No matter what the outcome, somebody -- be it the police or the police accountability crowd -- will be upset. And the payoff for all of his trouble sometimes seems paltry. Even in what he calls the "egregious case" of Housing Authority Police Officer John Charmo's shooting of Hazelwood resident Jerry Jackson in 1995, the shooter spent just one year in jail.

Charmo shot Jackson in the Armstrong Tunnels after a high-speed chase, and claimed Jackson had executed a U-turn and came barreling toward officers. Wecht's and Zappala's predecessors decided against charging Charmo. But in 1999, a videotape of the accident scene investigation emerged that cast doubt on Charmo's account. "I couldn't turn my goddamned bicycle around in the Armstrong Tunnel, let alone a fucking car!" Wecht summarizes. Wecht recommended homicide charges, Zappala filed them, and a trial ended in a hung jury. Zappala then offered a plea bargain, and in October 2001, Charmo pled guilty to manslaughter charges, and was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail, with credit for more than nine months he'd already served while awaiting trial. He was paroled in time for that Christmas.

The next time Wecht recommended homicide charges against a police officer -- following the Stanley shooting -- Zappala didn't follow suit. "I'm not being critical of Zappala, with whom I've had a good relationship," says Wecht. He notes that a DA's job is different from a coroner's, and "a good district attorney, if he's honest, will not go to trial unless he feels he can get a conviction." Convicting cops is tough, Wecht admits. But when the DA bucks his recommendations, he adds, "It is professionally, intellectually disconcerting, because I feel we have done a tremendous amount of work by the time an open inquest is finished. The DA's decision not to take on a case is something of a refutation."

In January 2002, the county police pulled out of an arrangement under which they had overseen the investigation of city police shootings. Instead, the DA's investigators now go out on such cases. And in September, Zappala's and Wecht's offices announced that they will no longer collaborate on open inquests. Previously, Zappala's prosecutors had handled most of the questioning of witnesses at inquests. Now Wecht's staff will conduct the examinations. "It was a mutual decision," says Wecht. "I think it will make no difference" in the prosecution of police deadly force cases.

Renee Wilson, director of People Against Police Violence, says she's worried about the breakdown in coordination between the coroner and the DA. "I think it's ridiculous that this DA says there's no value in the inquest process," she says. "Maybe he thinks that if his office doesn't participate, people won't go after him" when he declines to prosecute.

Zappala has said he can't staff inquests because of budget cuts. He declined to be interviewed for this story. His office says he won't speak on the issue of police deadly force until he has decided whether to prosecute several pending cases.

Wecht says it is common for district attorneys to shy away from charging police, with whom they work on the vast majority of prosecutions. "You've got to push hard to get them to make a move that could embarrass ... the realm of law enforcement. These are their compadres!

"Politics enters into it," Wecht adds. "The majority [of voters] are going to say that you did the right thing by not going after that cop. ... You don't win political points for trying to prosecute cases in which white cops killed minority [suspects]."

The prosecutor
Former District Attorney Bob Colville's political career apparently wasn't hurt by his failure to win convictions in police deadly-force cases. In 1997, as the prosecutions of the police involved in Jonny Gammage's death ended in mistrials and hung juries, Colville easily won election to a judgeship on the Common Pleas Court. When Colville vacated the DA's post, the common pleas judges voted, 22-6, to place Zappala in the post pending the 1999 election. Zappala lacked prosecutorial experience, and some observers attributed his ascent to family ties: The clan includes real-estate moguls, bond underwriters, and Zappala's father and namesake, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. On Grant Street, Zappala Jr. is often referred to as "Baby Zapp."

In his first two years as DA, Zappala zapped the string of trials of the Gammage cops, saying he didn't feel he could get convictions. His decisions to try Cooperstein and Charmo drew criticism from police officers, and his failures to win convictions irked the police accountability movement. "I had real problems with the fact that John Charmo went home [shortly] before Christmas, when Jerry Jackson will never see Christmas again," says Tim Stevens, president of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 2000, Wecht punted on the case of Gilbert Carswell, and Zappala followed suit. Carswell was a Pittsburgh man who, in an alcohol-fueled rage, repeatedly trashed his estranged wife's Homestead house on a November 1999 night. When police cornered him, he charged one officer, and was shot. The officer said Carswell ran into him, causing him to accidentally fire his drawn gun. The coroner's office concluded that Carswell was "at least 30 inches away" from the officer's gun when he was shot, but was unable to recommend for or against prosecution. Zappala took no action.

Other than the Stanley case, there was a lull in contentious police deadly-force cases in the county until Hunter's Sept. 7, 2002, shooting. Then came three troubling cases, in quick succession.

On Nov. 15, Housing Authority police shot and killed Bernard Rogers at a public housing unit in the Hill District. Rogers was unarmed, but possessed a small amount of marijuana. Police said they weren't even trying to arrest him when he reached for one of their guns. A scuffle ensued, and police and witness accounts differ on what happened next. Police say Rogers tackled Officer Tonyea Curry on a loveseat, and tried to get his gun, and Curry shot him. Witnesses say Rogers was shot while trying to flee the apartment. (Rogers has a history of running; he pled guilty to resisting arrest in 1999.) Based on witness testimony, the angle of the wound, and Rogers' dying scramble down a flight of metal stairs, Wecht opined that Rogers was shot while he was trying to get out the apartment door, and that he was "neither life-threatening nor capable of causing bodily injury" at the time. On March 13, he recommended homicide charges. Nearly eight months later, Zappala's office says he'll soon announce whether he'll file charges.

Five weeks after Wecht's recommendation in the Rogers case, Charles Dixon was at a birthday party at the Mount Oliver Fire Hall, which was policed by two young officers and one police dog. His brother, Gregory, was drunk and stuck his hand in a spaghetti bowl, and the two officers asked him to sit down. According to police, Charles Dixon approached and asked the officers to stop "messing with" Gregory. An argument ensued, and the officers called for back-up and asked Dixon to leave. Dixon backed away, but "refused to leave," Officer Matthew Juzwick testified, according to the transcript of the inquest. "I then instructed Officer [Ron Lacher] to place him under arrest because he -- was becoming even more verbally combative, to resolve the situation, to clear it up for the time being."

Dixon had been arrested before; in the mid-'80s, he served a 20-month sentence for robbery, and in the mid-'90s he pled guilty to charges including theft, cocaine possession, and fleeing from police. He'd had no problems with the law since 1996, but apparently was in no mood to be locked up. When Lacher tried to make the arrest, Dixon "pulled his arm in toward his chest," Lacher testified, according to the transcript. Some 10 Mount Oliver and Pittsburgh officers poured in and took Dixon to the ground, where he struggled with several officers. Lacher pepper-sprayed his face. Dixon passed out, never regained consciousness, and died two days later.

On July 22, Wecht attributed Dixon's death to "mechanical asphyxiation" when his body couldn't supply oxygen to his brain. He concluded that witness reports of police "piling on" the back of the 300-pound Dixon were more credible than police testimony that they merely pinned Dixon's arms and legs. "Even obese people roll over on their stomachs while sleeping and do not die," he said. Wecht recommended homicide charges, but said he couldn't determine which of the officers involved in the scuffle should be charged. More than three months later, Zappala's decision is still pending.

"I feel that the time of waiting is unnecessary," says Charles Dixon Jr., the deceased's son, a sophomore at Penn State. "This is a case where there were a lot of witnesses. ... There's evidence that they wrongly asphyxiated my dad." (The Dixon family settled its civil suit against Mt. Oliver for an undisclosed amount on Oct. 29.)

Wecht calls it "absurd" that even on cases in which an assistant district attorney helped conduct the inquest, as happened in the Rogers and Dixon cases, Zappala's subsequent review takes months. After the inquest, says Wecht, "The DA's office says, 'We'll now look into it.' Well, my God, man, where has your assistant district attorney been?"

Now the Rodney Mathews case is in the pipeline, and all eyes are on Zappala. "I think we have a DA who is slow to move," says police watchdog Wilson. "This DA doesn't go after police." Her organization sought to ratchet up the pressure with a Nov. 1 march to Zappala's office, calling for prosecutions in a number of cases.

Zappala, a Democrat, was unopposed on the Nov. 4 ballot, and is considered a likely candidate for attorney general next year. "The governor has personally solicited Steve and promised him a couple million dollars in help," says political analyst William J. Green, a Zappala friend.

Should Zappala seek statewide office, police deadly force cases could prove politically treacherous for him. African Americans -- many of whom are concerned about police abuse -- are "major players in the Democratic machinery," says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University. Significant black opposition could make it hard for a candidate to win the Democratic State Committee endorsement, and blacks make up 15 to 18 percent of the vote in Democratic primaries, Madonna says. But in the general election, he adds, "Police [union] endorsements are very, very important, and carry a lot of weight. ... Historically, in all [attorney general] races, the winners had presented themselves as tough crime fighters."

Does fighting crime sometimes mean prosecuting police? Willa Mae Mathews thinks so. "They murdered my son!" she says. "The one I think should be prosecuted is the one who shot my son." She says she's dismayed at a process in which the families of the deceased, the police leadership, the coroner and the prosecutor all seem to be in different, mutually suspicious camps. "Everybody's on different pages."

Willa Mae holds a ceramic plaque Rodney bought, painted and gave to her about a year ago. It reads, "God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." She has attended some police-accountability rallies, and hopes for change. "The more and more people that come out, the more chance there is," she says. "People are getting tired of it, black and white."

Nothing, of course, will undo the events of June 13, and Willa Mae can only hope there's a better world beyond. "When [Rodney] was 8, he asked me, 'Are there swimming pools in heaven?'" she says. "I said, 'Yeah, Rodney, there are swimming pools in heaven.' ... He's probably swimming every day."

Comments (0)
Comments are closed.