Something has always bothered Tim Stevens about the way police handled the investigation into the 1995 death of motorist Jerry Jackson at the hands of city Housing Authority Police Officer John Charmo.
"This is one of the worst cases of covering up the death of an African American by police ever in the city of Pittsburgh," alleges Stevens, who leads the Black Political Empowerment Project. "It's never been properly settled with me and many others. The time has come to finally get this on the public record and formally ask for intervention on the state and federal level to make those who covered up the circumstances of Jerry Jackson's death accountable."
A televised public hearing, prompted by citizen petition under the city's home-rule charter, will be conducted by B-PEP, the Citizen Police Review Board and others on Tue., Oct. 4, in Pittsburgh City Council chambers. It will include testimony from members of these organizations, as well as that of an active city police officer, Chuck Bosetti, who has been a longtime critic of the Jackson case's handling. The hearing will focus on evidence and procedures that the activists allege were never properly utilized.
On April 6, 1995, Jackson was shot to death in the narrow confines of the Armstrong Tunnel by Charmo following a high-speed chase. Charmo opened fire on Jackson's car after claiming the suspect -- who drew the attention of city police officers when he turned the wrong way down a one-way street in the Hill District -- pulled off two stuntman-quality 180-degree turns in the tunnels and charged Charmo's cruiser.
The criminal case was seemingly over without a trial after a coroner's jury cleared Charmo of wrongdoing. However, later in 1995, Jackson's mother Ina Jackson filed a civil lawsuit, which brought out videotaped evidence not available at the inquest. The tape showed that Jackson's car had never spun. The car had blown a tire, and the gouge marks left by the car's rim left only one clear indication -- neither Charmo nor other police officials had described the sequence of events as they had actually happened. Charmo did not fire at the car coming straight at him; Jackson's car was pinned against the tunnel wall by Charmo's vehicle when the officer opened fire. The chase had ended before the fatal shots were fired, according to evidence presented at Charmo's 2001 criminal trial.
In his deposition for the civil case, then-Homicide Division Commander Ron Freeman admitted that he and most of the officers on the scene had never believed the car had spun. However, they kept their mouths shut that night in the tunnel, during the open inquest and after Charmo was apparently cleared of any wrongdoing in 1995. Another city police officer, Charles Conroy, told the coroner's inquest he had seen Jackson's car spin. Conroy later testified at Charmo's trial that the car did not spin and that he had seen Charmo sitting in his vehicle, with both cars stopped, firing repeatedly into Jackson's car.
Conroy later retired from the department. No charges were filed against him.
Crucial personnel, including Lt. Steve Starcich, the head of the city's accident-reconstruction unit, were sent away from the scene by Freeman, according to Starcich's testimony at Charmo's civil trial. Starcich said that, had he been allowed to do his job that night, any notion of Jackson's car spinning in the tunnel would have been rebutted.
The city settled Ina Jackson's civil lawsuit for $350,000. Charmo faced criminal trial in February 2001, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. Jackson's mother Ina died a month later.
Before a second criminal trial could be held, Charmo copped a plea of involuntary manslaughter in October 2001, and was sentenced to 11-and-a-half to 23 months in jail. With time served, he was released by Christmas 2001.
Pittsburgh Police spokesperson Tammy Ewin said the bureau would have no comment on the upcoming hearing.
Local activist Celeste Taylor, who claims the hearing petitions contained hundreds of signatures above the mere 25 required, says those involved with the hearing will also be asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the dimensions of any possible cover-up and will ask the government to file criminal charges against those allegedly involved.
Beth Pittinger, head of the Citizen Police Review Board, says she hopes someone will take a "serious legal look" at what happened. Pittinger says it's still not too late to find justice for Jackson by determining which officers and officials may have been involved in the possible cover-up and charging them with any applicable crimes, including obstruction of justice.
"A lot of people have said, 'Let it go, it's been 10 years,'" Pittinger says. "But it's not right that this case never received a proper full hearing or inquest. Is there criminal culpability here that falls back onto the Bureau of Police? We owe it to Jerry Jackson and the citizens of this city to find out in a full hearing."
B-PEP's Stevens says the time is right to make sure cases like this don't happen in the future. Several previously helpful legal avenues, he points out, are either gone or on their way out -- the federal consent decree, under which the government oversaw city police in several areas, was lifted in 2002, and the county coroner's ability to hold open inquests into deaths has come under legal challenge from the district attorney.
"I believe this hearing will be so riveting that people won't be able to turn away," says Stevens. "They won't be able to ignore it -- what happened in Jackson's case and what happens in the future."