Former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld was charged with homicide for shooting Antwon Rose II in the back as the 17-year-old ran away from a high-stakes traffic stop last June.
But Rosfeld walked out of the courtroom a free man on Friday after jurors rejected the prosecution’s argument that he acted as Rose’s “judge, jury and executioner”, in the words of an assistant district attorney.
The decision was met with sadness and anger by the family of the teen.
“I hope that man never sleeps at night,” Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, said of Rosfeld, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I hope he gets as much sleep as I do, which is none.”
The verdict leaves Rose’s family to pursue the federal civil rights lawsuit they filed last August against Rosfeld and East Pittsburgh, a small municipality about 16km from central Pittsburgh.
Rose’s death – one of many high-profile killings of black men and teens by white police officers in recent years – spurred angry protests in the Pittsburgh area last year, including a late-night march that shut down a major highway.
The reaction was measured after Friday night’s verdict, with a small group of chanting protesters briefly blocking intersections and entering hotels. Pittsburgh police tweeted the “peaceful demonstration” had resulted in rolling, temporary road closures.
Rose was riding in an unlicensed taxi that had been involved in a drive-by shooting minutes earlier when Rosfeld pulled the car over and shot the 17-year-old in the back, arm and side of the face as he ran away.
The former officer told jurors he thought Rose or another suspect had a gun pointed at him, insisting he fired his weapon to protect himself and the community. Neither teen was holding one when Rosfeld opened fire, though two guns were later found in the car.
Rose “posed no threat whatsoever to Rosfeld or others,” said the family’s lawyer, Fred Rabner. “Make no mistake, there is nothing reasonable or appropriate about the manner Officer Rosfeld took Antwon’s life.”
The seven-member panel saw video footage of the fatal confrontation, which showed Rose falling to the ground after being hit. The acquittal came after fewer than four hours of deliberations on the fourth day of the trial.
Defence lawyer Patrick Thomassey told reporters that Rosfeld is “a good man. He said to me many times, ‘Patrick, this has nothing to do with the kid’s colour. I was doing what I was trained to do’.”
Thomassey said he hoped the city remained calm, and “everybody takes a deep breath and gets on with their lives.”
Michelle Kenney, Rose’s mother, said she was upset but unsurprised by the verdict, given other cases in which police officers have either avoided charges or won acquittals in similar shootings.
“It isn’t what I hoped for, but it’s what I expected,” she said, adding she feels her son ended up dead because he was black.
At trial, the prosecution and the defence sparred over whether Rosfeld – who had worked for the East Pittsburgh Police Department for only a few weeks and was officially sworn in just hours before the fatal shooting – was justified in using lethal force.
Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Fodi declared in his closing argument that Rosfeld had acted as “judge, jury and executioner,” and the video evidence showed “there was no threat” to the officer. “We don’t shoot first and ask questions later,” the prosecutor added.
But a defence expert testified Rosfeld was within his rights to use deadly force to stop suspects he thought had been involved in a shooting. Prosecutors did not call their own use-of-force expert.
“The prosecution’s handling of this case, particularly the decision not to call a police expert, raises many questions,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
Rose had been riding in the front seat of the cab when another occupant, Zaijuan Hester, in the back, rolled down a window and shot at two men on the street, hitting one in the abdomen. A few minutes later, Rosfeld spotted their car, which had its rear windshield shot out, and pulled it over. Rosfeld ordered the driver to the ground, but Rose and another passenger jumped out and began running away. Rosfeld fired three times in quick succession.
The defence said the shooting was justified because Rosfeld believed he was in danger and could not wait for other officers to get there.
“He’s a sitting duck,” Thomassey told jurors in his closing argument, asking them to consider “the standard of what a reasonable police officer would do under the circumstances”.
Hester, 18, pleaded guilty last week to aggravated assault and firearms violations. Hester told a judge that he, not Rose, did the shooting.
Prosecutors had charged Rosfeld with an open count of homicide, meaning the jury had the option of convicting him of murder or manslaughter. The prosecution said Rosfeld gave inconsistent statements about the shooting, including whether he thought Rose was armed.