Jury selection is expected to begin Tuesday in downtown Harrisburg for the trial of a Pittsburgh-area police officer charged with criminal homicide in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager last year.
Residents of Dauphin County are being picked as jurors for this case because of concerns it would be hard to find an impartial jury in Allegheny county, where the incident occurred.
The fatal shooting of Antwon Rose, 17, on June 19 sparked weeks of protests, including some that shut down Pittsburgh-area highways, with protesters focused particularly on race since the teen was black and the officer is white.
The empaneled jury from Dauphin County will be bused to Allegheny County and sequestered in a hotel for the duration of the trial, which is set to begin March 19.
The city of Pittsburgh was prepping downtown businesses for possible unrest over the trial, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Officer Michael Rosfeld, 30, was charged with a single count of homicide after he fired three gunshots at Antwon who had fled from a traffic stop. A bystander recorded part of the shooting on a cell phone video that went viral.
Antwon was hit by bullets in the right cheek, right elbow and in the middle of his back, according to court records.
Rosfeld, who had been sworn in as an East Pittsburgh officer just two hours prior to the fatal shooting, originally told police he thought Antwon had something dark that he perceived as a gun in his hand, but Rosfeld later clarified he wasn’t sure what the teen had in his hand.
Two witnesses told police said that Antwan and another passenger who fled clearly had nothing in their hands when they ran away from the car, which had been previously linked to a drive-by shooting, according to court records.
Jury selection is expected to take several days as prosecutors and the defense team each try to elicit information from prospective jurors.
Because a police officer is the one charged, prosecutors will be looking for a different type of juror than in a typical case when police officers are the witnesses, said Mark Calzaretta, a jury consultant and vice president of litigation for Magna Legal Services, based in Philadelphia.
Instead of looking for jurors who might hold police officers in a more favorable light, prosecutors in this trial will be looking to weed out those potential jurors instead favoring residents who may have had negative experiences with police, Calzaretta said.
The defense team, meanwhile, will be looking among prospective jurors for those who are more likely to be “pro-police” jurors, more conservative and rule-followers.
If potential jurors reveal conflicts of interest or biases, the judge can remove them from the panel “for cause.” Each side of attorneys also will be able to make up to seven “peremptory challenges,” to remove jurors for no publicly stated reason.
But sometimes attorneys don’t get to use all seven challenges if one side quickly agrees to a panel of jurors, Calzaretta said. The other side could create a bad impression with the jury by repeatedly pulling additional people from the panel while jurors wonder why only one side is unsatisfied with the jurors.
“You have to be careful because you can put an impression on a jury before the trial even starts,” he said.
Racial overtones and a national debate over policing tactics could make it hard for some jurors to open up during “voir dire,” or the jury selection process, Calzaretta said, because they might not be comfortable publicly sharing opinions they worry might be unpopular. That’s going to be a challenge for both sides, he said, to ensure prospective jurors are comfortable enough to share information about how they feel about policing and their own fear levels.
A potential juror with a bias could slip onto the jury if they don’t divulge their true feelings.
“It’s going to be tough,” Calzaretta said, “because some of these are issues that people don’t necessarily want to talk about. The trick is going to be to get them comfortable to talk.”
This marks the second time a Dauphin County jury has heard a case of an on-duty officer charged with homicide since 2015. That year, a Dauphin County jury acquitted former Hummelstown Officer Lisa Mearkle of homicide after she fatally shot a 59-year-old man in the back as he lay on the ground after she repeatedly used a stun gun on him. She testified that he ignored her orders and concealed his hands at times.
This also marks the second time a Dauphin County jury has been called to assist Allegheny County since 2011. That year, a Dauphin County jury served as the outside jury for the trial of Richard Poplawski, who was accused of killing three Pittsburgh police officers. Those jurors convicted Poplawski and found he should be sentenced to death.
Dauphin County is usually chosen by the Supreme Court to provide juries for high-profile Allegheny County cases due largely to the similar population demographics of the two counties.
At issue in this case will be whether the officer was justified in shooting the unarmed teen.
“You do not shoot someone in the back if they are not a threat to you,” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said previously at a news conference.
Rosfeld’s attorney has said his client had cause to open fire after learning the car Antwan was riding in was used in a drive-by shooting.
Antwon was the front-seat passenger in a car linked to a drive-by shooting earlier that evening. Thirteen minutes later, Officer Rosfeld spotted the car with a shot-out rear window, according to the Post-Gazette.
He pulled the vehicle over and ordered the driver onto the ground. After that, Antwon and the back-seat passenger, Zaijuan Hester, got out and started to run away.
Police obtained video surveillance of the drive-by shooting that showed the back seat passenger wearing a dark shirt had his window down and fired a gun outside the window. Antwon was in the front seat, where the window remained closed during the entire shooting, according to the video.
Police later charged Hester in connection with the drive-by shooting that wounded a man.
This piece originally appeared in Penn Live on March 12, 2019.