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Courts & Justice

NAACP files complaint against Lebanon County DA over handling of state police shootings

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Sarah Kovash
/
90.5 WESA

A local branch of the NAACP alleges Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf violated rules of professional conduct and ethics in her handling of investigations into two recent state police shootings of unarmed people.

The Lebanon chapter of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, filed a complaint with the state supreme court’s disciplinary board against Graf. Much of the complaint focuses on two incidents where Pennsylvania State Police killed people.

“Lebanon County residents, especially those living with mental health issues and struggling with addiction, have a right to public service that is fair, impartial, aligned with departmental protocol, and, most importantly, non-lethal,” said Tony Fields, president of the NAACP chapter.

The disciplinary board reviews complaints against attorneys and can take a number of actions, including disbarment, suspension, public censure, probation and public reprimand. The board was not immediately available for comment.

The complaint follows a late-December New York Times profile of Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Jay Splain. The profile revealed that Splain has killed four people throughout his approximately 15-year career, making him an outlier in a profession where many officers never fire their weapons while on duty. Splain killed two of those people in Lebanon County, where Graf oversees investigations into police misconduct.

Graf says the complaint is “meritless.”

The complaint cites the trooper-involved shooting of Charity Thome along a rural road in the early hours of March 16, 2020, which was also detailed in the NYT report. Thome’s estate has filed a civil rights excessive force lawsuit against Splain and another trooper, Matthew Haber.

Thome, who lived with a mental illness and drug addiction, had recently been evicted from her home, the NYT report states. Thome was caught trying to break into her former home, and she fled in her car.

North Lebanon Police Department Officer Ryan Haase initially followed her but told dispatchers that he planned to end the pursuit because Thome was not endangering the public, the report states.

However, after Splain and Haber, joined Haase, state police performed a “P.I.T. maneuver,” which involves ramming into a vehicle to cause it to crash. After Thome’s car spun into a field, it moved forward toward a police car, and Splain and Haber fired their weapons. Thome was shot seven times, according to an autopsy report.

Graf investigated the shooting and said it was “justified,” meaning troopers would not be further investigated or charged with a crime.

“Most of us will never know what it feels like as a police officer, faced with an immediate situation that requires action,” Graf wrote in a press release at the conclusion of her investigation. She said troopers killed Thome “in the face of an extremely fast-paced, tumultuous, and dangerous situation” and “did so believing it necessary to save their fellow officers and themselves.”

The NAACP chapter said Graf’s office failed to conduct a rigorous and thorough investigation — saying Graf disregarded supposed inconsistencies between what troopers said and what other evidence showed. “By all appearances, her office’s so-called ‘investigation’ was hurried and perfunctory and its outcome predetermined,” the complaint states.

For example, Haber allegedly said that he and Splain gave Thome verbal commands prior to shooting her, but no such commands can be heard on dashcam footage, although other sounds, such as sirens, radio communications and gunshots, can be heard.

Splain allegedly had told investigators that about 30 seconds had passed between leaving his vehicle and the shooting. Video footage shows it happened in a few seconds.

While Graf had said Thome’s vehicle “accelerated” toward a police cruiser, and Splain and Haber said Thome’s vehicle posed a threat, Officer Haase said her car was only going about five miles an hour and he was more worried about it damaging the police vehicle, the complaint states.

Asked to comment for this story, Graf said the investigation into the Thome shooting was “thorough and complete.”

“We issued a statement at the conclusion of the investigation with our findings and determinations,” Graf said. “I stand behind the investigation and statement as I always have.”

Graf is married to Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Christopher Graf, who is based in the PSP Jonestown barracks along with Splain and Haber, according to the complaint. The NAACP says that fact creates “a clear conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety.”

“She could have, and should have, recused herself and turned the investigation over to the State Attorney General’s office, but she refused to do so,” the complaint states. “Her refusal is part of a larger pattern of disregard for and violation of the canons of professional ethics she is bound by law to uphold.”

In November 2021, Splain killed another person in Lebanon County, Andy Dzwonchyk, while he and other troopers were attempting to take him into custody following an alleged protection from abuse order violation.

Graf confirmed that her office is overseeing that investigation.

“My Detective Bureau operates independently of the State Police and I stand behind the caliber of each man,” Graf said. “We cannot comment on an active investigation. At its conclusion, we will issue a statement with our findings and determinations.”

The complaint also alleges that Graf, who has attended “Back the Blue” fundraising events while serving as district attorney, was breaking rules “governing extrajudicial activities and participation in civic and charitable activities.”

Graf pushed back against the idea that her marriage to a state police officer would affect her work. They got married three years ago. Graf noted that she served as a prosecutor for 12 years prior to becoming district attorney.

“I’ve taken 102 defendants to trial; my conviction rate is nearly ninety percent,” Graf said. “I’ve handled brutal homicides, rapes, robberies, and cases of child abuse. In every aspect of my career, I endeavor to serve this community and protect its citizens from the vile and evil criminals who would otherwise prey upon them.”

Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Corporal Brent Miller said Splain is currently on administrative duty.

“Administrative Duty is a modified duty assignment where a member performs work which may be outside of their normally assigned duties, functions, and responsibilities,” Miller said. “It is standard policy to assign a member who is involved in an officer-involved shooting/serious police incident to administrative duties while the incident is under investigation.”

Splain is permitted to carry his service weapon while on administrative duty, Miller said.

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