PITTSBURGH (AP) — The trial of a white Pittsburgh police officer accused of violating the civil rights of a black man who was left paralyzed after being shot as he sped away from a traffic stop is one of perspective, attorneys for both sides told a federal jury in opening statements.
The attorney for Officers David Derbish and Andrew Miller said in his opening Wednesday that the jury must look at the case from the officers' standpoint.
Miller is accused of assault and battery for trying to drag 24-year-old Leon Ford from the car, while Derbish is being sued for allegedly using excessive force in shooting Ford during the ill-fated, 12-minute traffic stop in November 2012.
One of Ford's attorneys, Monte Rabner, likened the incident to "Keystone Cops" in his opening statement on Tuesday.
"This case is about poor police work," Rabner said. "Poor police work got Leon in that wheelchair."
Ford's attorneys claim police wrongly pulled over Ford for running stop signs, but did so primarily because another officer mistook Leon Ford for Lamont Ford Jr., a wanted gang member with a similar face, build and age. The men are not related and Lamont Ford, 22, died in a crash while being chased by Pittsburgh police in December 2014, when he was wanted on weapons charges.
Miller was initially involved in the stop; Derbish was not. Miller called him to the scene believing Derbish had dealt with Lamont Ford in the past and could clarify Leon Ford's identity. When Derbish told the other officers he couldn't be sure, they demanded Ford get out of the car so he could be frisked, in part because Derbish claimed to see a "bulge" in Ford's sweat pants.
Ford, who had no criminal record, didn't have a gun. His attorneys said he became alarmed because police refused to believe he wasn't Lamont Ford, despite producing a license, vehicle registration and insurance card confirming his identity. Ford and his attorneys also dispute that he purposely sped from the scene. They argue the car was knocked into gear and Ford unwittingly stepped on the gas as Miller tried to pull him from the vehicle and Derbish — partially kneeling on the passenger seat — worked with Miller to get him out of the car.
Joseph Santarone Jr., an attorney for the officers, reminded the jury that despite the emotional aspects of the case, the civil accusations against the officers are cut-and-dried. Did Miller assault or batter Ford in trying unsuccessfully to pull him from the car, and did Derbish use excessive force in shooting Ford?
Santarone told the jury Derbish "feared for his life" as the car pulled away with him in it, and that the legal standard for determining whether the officer was right to use deadly force is whether his actions were reasonable, based on what he knew at the time.
The officers are expected to testify in what is scheduled to be a three-week trial.
The city's Citizen Police Review Board concluded the officers contributed to the shooting by not following proper procedures — notably Derbish's decision to partially enter Ford's car. The board also said it could have been prevented had Ford obeyed the officers and gotten out of his car.