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Jury Clears One Pittsburgh Officer, Deadlocks On Other In Leon Ford Shooting Trial

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Fred Rabner, an attorney for Leon Ford, leaves the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh on October 3, 2017.

UPDATED: 5:31 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017

A jury Tuesday cleared one Pittsburgh police officer and deadlocked on charges against a second in a civil rights lawsuit filed by a man who was paralyzed when he was shot during a traffic stop.

The jury deadlocked on whether Officer David Derbish used excessive force when he shot and paralyzed Leon Ford during a traffic stop in 2012. U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly said Derbish will stand trial again in early 2018.

The jury cleared the second officer in the case, Andrew Miller. Miller was tried for assault and battery because he tried to pull Ford out of his car before the shooting occurred.

Ford’s attorney, Fred Rabner, said the jury squandered an opportunity Tuesday to break from a national pattern where officers don't face legal consequences for using deadly force against civilians, a disproportionate share of whom are black.

“This is a swing-and-miss by this jury. I think it’s an opportunity lost,” Rabner said. “It’s a microcosm of a problem in our country, that a jury when hearing that overwhelming avalanche of evidence against the officer’s behavior and still come out deadlocked.”

Rabner said Ford wasn’t surprised by the jury’s decision, noting that the deck was stacked against his client, who is black, in key ways.

“When you’re dealing with a situation where you’re putting your fate in ten individuals who you don’t know – and quite frankly, it wasn’t exactly the best cross-section. We’re talking about ten white individuals judging three white officers,” Rabner said. “There’s already an inherent known police bias.”

While some activists were dismayed by the partial verdict, demonstrations won’t take place without the blessing of the Ford family, according to Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability. There were no protests during the trial.

“Leon has really taken this journey of healing,” Fisher said. “He wanted people just to pray. During his trial, he appreciated everyone’s support, but he asked that we just kept him in prayer.”

Fisher said all officer-involved cases are important to the community, but because there’s been a national dialogue around aggressive policing, people were hopeful that the officers involved in the encounter that paralyzed Ford would be held liable.

“They’re hurt,” Fisher said. “The first initial thing they feel is anger. And then there’s pain. It’s traumatic every time one of these results come out in cases. It’s traumatic for the black community.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said nothing, including the suit, "could ever erase the tragic circumstances Mr. Ford, the officers and their families have been through the past five years."

He said he recognizes the "great concern" the jury's decisions could cause, and promised to "remain in communication with Ford, his attorneys and attorneys for the officers to address next steps in the case."

Fisher said police-community relations are going backwards in Pittsburgh. She said the partial-verdict sent a clear message that there’s still support for over-policing.

On November 11, 2012, Miller and his partner, Pittsburgh police officer Michael Kosko, pulled Ford, then 19, over for traffic violations in Highland Park. According to court documents, the officers, who are white, suspected Leon Ford of being Lamont Ford, a wanted gang member who was also black.

The officers then called Pittsburgh Detective David Derbish to the scene to determine Ford’s identity. Derbish said he saw a bulge in Ford’s sweatpants from outside the car and worried it could be a weapon.

When Ford refused to exit the car for a pat-down, Miller tried unsuccessfully to pull Ford out of the car. Detective Derbish then jumped in the passenger side. The car, which was in drive, started to move, and within seconds, Derbish shot Ford in the chest five times, paralyzing him. Derbish said he feared for his safety.

There is no criminal case against the officers.

Fisher said what the community wants is justice, which she said only truly comes from a judge and jury.