A white Pennsylvania police officer was charged with criminal homicide just eight days after fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager in the back in a case built quickly on the testimony of multiple witnesses, video and the officer’s own conflicting statements.
“You do not shoot someone in the back if they are not a threat to you,” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala said.
East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld was charged Wednesday in the June 19 shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose Jr. after the teen fled from a traffic stop. Rosfeld, 30, turned himself in and was later released on $250,000 bond.
Patrick Thomassey, a lawyer for Rosfeld didn’t say much about the charge as he left court Wednesday morning, but had earlier said that his client was depressed and had been in shock since the shooting because it was the first time he had fired his service weapon.
That speed with which prosecutors charged Rosfeld isn’t unusual for Pennsylvania, said criminologist Philip Stinson who works at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He’s been tracking police shootings and officer prosecutions for more than a decade and said the process for filing charges in Pennsylvania makes it easier to move fast, but the specific details of the shooting also made it easier.
“Videos change things. They don’t necessarily change the outcome in terms of convictions, but they do change the ability to charge quickly,” Stinson said. “And in a case like this where you have four or five corroborating witnesses to bystander video that was released before investigators ever had it, it gave the district attorney the opportunity to make a quick decision.”
A bystander captured video from a nearby house that showed a portion of the traffic stop and the subsequent shooting of Rose and posted it on Facebook. There were numerous other people who also witnessed the shooting from their homes and spoke to police.
Rosfeld, who had been sworn in a few hours earlier after working at the department for a few weeks, pulled over the car Rose was riding in because it matched the description of a car witnesses reported seeing leave the area of a non-fatal drive-by shooting in a nearby town.
Rosfeld, who was alone in his patrol car, began taking the driver into custody and the two passengers, Rose and another teenager who police say was the shooter in the earlier drive-by, fled from the passenger side. Rosfeld fired three shots after they began running, striking Rose in the cheek, the right elbow and the fatal shot that entered his back and pierced his lung and heart.
The officer’s story was inconsistent when he was interviewed by investigators. Court documents say Rosfeld at first said Rose pointed his hands with a dark object he thought was a gun at him. In recapping his version of events to investigators he said he wasn’t sure there was a gun or that the teen had pointed his hands in his direction.
Witnesses told investigators and the video shows Rose briefly raising his empty hands before running from the car. He made it less than 50 feet (15 meters) before he was shot.
Fred Rabner, an attorney who represents Rose’s family, said they are prepared for the long road that they hope will lead to a conviction.
“And we’re not foolish enough to believe that this is going to be an easy mile to run either, we recognize that it’s going to be fraught with hurdles,” Rabner said. “But we recognize that things take their course and the investigators seem earnest in their efforts to put the case together.”
Stinson said he updated his database Wednesday to show Rosfeld was the 87th nonfederal sworn officer to be charged in an on-duty fatal shooting in the U.S. since 2005. Of those charged, 32 have been convicted, 41 have been acquitted or had charges dropped and 14 cases are still pending.
“It’s not a given once an officer is charged that they will be convicted. I would bet the district attorney’s investigators are still gathering evidence and still putting the case together,” Stinson said.