Justice for Antwon? Police officer charged in death of unarmed PA teenager

The police shooting of an unarmed teenager in the back has enraged Pittsburgh’s citizens, who have flocked to the streets to demand justice for Antwon Rose. They may get it, although the case could have some complications. Prosecutors filed charges against police officer Michael Rosfeld for homicide in Rose’s death, which came after police stopped a car with Rose and another young man in connection to a drive-by shooting:

The Pittsburgh-area police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager last week has been charged in his death.

The officer, identified by authorities as Michael Rosfeld of the Allegheny County Police Department, was arrested and charged with one count of criminal homicide Wednesday, according to court documents obtained by ABC News.

Rosfeld fatally shot 17-year-old Antwon Rose on the night of June 19, after the teen and two others were pulled over in a car believed to have been connected to an earlier shooting that same night.

Rose was struck in the upper body as he and another passenger of the car fled on foot from police during the traffic stop in the borough of East Pittsburgh, about 11 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

The local CBS affiliate reports that Rosfeld’s work record may come under question, too:

According to sources, Rosfeld had only been on duty in East Pittsburgh for three weeks, and he was formally sworn in about 90 minutes before the fatal shooting. Rosfeld had been working as a police officer in the region since 2011.

He had previously worked in Harmarville and Oakmont. He also worked for the University of Pittsburgh Police Department and was reportedly dismissed for cause from the university. Pitt turned his personnel file over to county investigators as part of the investigation.

However, the second person in the car has also been charged for the crime officers were investigating in the shooting. That might complicate matters for the prosecution of Rosfeld:

Police say they have a teenage boy in custody who will be charged in last week’s drive-by shooting in North Braddock — an incident that happened minutes before Antwon Rose was fatally shot by police.

Zaijuan Hester, 17, was arrested in the Hill District around 11:30 p.m. Monday for cutting off his ankle bracelet in a prior case.

Charges against Hester for the June 19 drive-by shooting were field [sic] Wednesday morning. He is charged with aggravated assault, criminal homicide, receiving stolen property and firearm charges.

The question for the jury in the Rosfeld trial will be whether the officer exercised a reasonable use of force in light of the potential danger to himself and the community. That’ll be a tough sale when it comes to shooting someone in the back, but the defense will point out that (a) the officers were responding to a report of a drive-by shooting, (b) the car matched the description, (c) both young men ran away from the scene rather than cooperate, and (d) Rose had an empty magazine in his pocket, which might have looked like the outline of a gun to officers in the heat of the moment. If you add (e) Hester is being charged with the drive-by shooting that created the incident, then it might add up to at least some reasonable doubt. Juries tend to give a large amount of benefit of doubt to police officers, and that set of circumstances could fit within it.

Still, shooting a suspect in the back is going to be a tough hurdle to overcome. Police have more leeway to deploy lethal force than regular citizens, but they still have to show an acute danger to their own lives and the lives of others in the vicinity. Running from a scene isn’t a reason to deploy lethal force, unless Rose had a gun in his hand — and that clearly wasn’t the case. If Rosfeld’s dismissal at Pitt has anything to do with unreasonable force, the benefit of the doubt that juries tend to give police officers could dissipate quickly, especially given Rosfeld’s lack of experience and tenure in this particular position.

The big question will be whether Rosfeld can find a fair jury in the heat of this public debate. Or, for that matter, whether Antwon Rose can.