Trying to Try the Charmo Case Again | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Trying to Try the Charmo Case Again

In the 1995 police shooting death of motorist Jerry Jackson, city Housing Authority Police Officer John Charmo swore that Jackson's 1990 Mazda 626 made a 180-degree turn in the tight, curving Armstrong Tunnels -- a threatening maneuver that caused the officer to shoot. Later investigations proved that this was not physically possible.



The civil-rights group Black Political Empowerment Project petitioned the city for an Oct. 4 hearing to say if the car don't fit, then you must re-submit.


A two-week criminal trial of Charmo in Feb., 2001, ended with a deadlocked jury. Before his re-trial, Charmo pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter (a first degree misdemeanor), for which he served less than a year in jail. Tim Stevens, head of B-PEP, called for a re-opening of the case by state and U.S. prosecutors to "uncover the cover-up" through which, they say, city police got off the hook for their involvement in the aftermath.


Stevens spoke at the Oct. 4 hearing just hours after the council issued a proclamation declaring that date Jonny Gammage Day, in memory of the black driver who was killed during an encounter with suburban police officers in October, 1995. Stevens was accompanied by 20 other civil-rights activists and law-enforcement experts, some of whom questioned whether police perjured themselves in depositions and trials when they said Jackson spun his car around in the tunnel to threaten police.


City Officer Robert Swartzwelder, a use-of-force specialist, told the council that deadly force could be justified if the suspect was armed or presented a threat of danger to the cops or the public. Jackson was unarmed, but his car could be interpreted as a deadly weapon, Swartzwelder said.


Evidence from the 1999 inquests and trials proved that officers fired shots at Jackson's car when its tires had already been flattened from the police chase. Thirty-five of the 51 bullets shot at Jackson came after the vehicle was completely stopped -- pinned against the tunnel by Charmo's car. Of the 14 bullets that hit Jackson, eight were .40-caliber Black Talon "cop killer" slugs from Charmo's Sig-Sauer weapon, hitting Jackson's upper right chest and brain.


City Officer Charles Bosetti, former vice-president of the Fraternal Order of Police and long a critic of police administration, told City Council that he believed perjury occurred "when [Charmo] said the car spun completely around and we found out later that that did not occur."


The biggest failure of the investigation into Jackson's death, said Bosetti, was that police and homicide experts did not reconstruct the scene to see if it matched Charmo's account. Timothy Uhlrich, solicitor for the county coroner's office, said there was a reconstruction of the scene -- four years later.


When Coroner Cyril Wecht, who was not in office at the time of Jackson's death, opened an inquest in January of 1999, he was hampered by the lack of information available, said Uhlrich, including a missing case file and the yet-to-be-discovered videotape of the crime scene, which contained proof that Jackson's car did not spin around in the tunnel.


"I don't think there was an attempt to hide it," said Uhlrich. "I just think no one" -- including Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conrad, prosecuting at the time -- asked for it.


"No one should have had to ask for it," City Councilor Sala Udin stormed back. "The officer with the video should have come forward."


Police Commander Ronald Freeman, who was in charge of the investigation that night, knew about the videotape but never mentioned it until a 1999 deposition in a civil suit filed by Jackson's family.


"Those officers had a duty to disclose that videotape," opined Elizabeth Pittinger, head of the Citizen Police Review Board.


It is significant, Pittinger added, that Jackson's deadly encounter with police happened in the darkest hours of the night. Almost 84 percent of cases involving police use of force happen at night, she said. The officers' handling of Jackson might have been attributed to "spotty training" and low training budgets, concurred Swartzwelder.


"Low-light" training for police, concluded Pittinger, may just be a "critical issue."

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