by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
In 2015, then-Pittsburgh police Officer Stephen Matakovich, who is White, was caught on video punching and assaulting an intoxicated 19-year-old White male near Heinz Field.
The officer was sentenced to two years in prison, where he sits today.
On June 19, 2018, then-East Pittsburgh police Officer Michael Rosfeld, who is White, stopped a car carrying three African American males, and shot one of them, 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, three times as the unarmed teen was running away from the officer, seemingly posing no imminent threat.
Rose died from the fatal shot in his back by Rosfeld.
The entire incident was also caught on video, shown to the entire world.
But unlike Matakovich, today, Rosfeld sits at home, a free man.
People in the Pittsburgh area had been waiting for the Michael Rosfeld Trial to begin for months, as Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala charged Rosfeld with criminal homicide in the shooting death of Rose.
Most African Americans in the Pittsburgh area believed the shooting was not justified, and that Rosfeld should be found guilty of something—possibly first-degree murder, possibly third-degree murder. If not murder as is spelled out by the law, then manslaughter—voluntary or involuntary.
But at 9:07 p.m., Friday, March 22, after a fast-moving, four-day criminal trial inside Courtroom 323 at the Allegheny County Courthouse, jury foreman Jesse Rawls Sr. read a “not guilty” verdict for Rosfeld on all charges.
Just to make sure, each juror was asked if they were in agreeance with the verdict. Each one answered in the affirmative.
Seconds later, Rosfeld, wearing a gray suit, clean-shaven and visibly relieved, was whisked out of the courtroom, followed by his family.
Rosfeld hasn’t been seen since then, but there have been thousands of people who have been in the public eye since the verdict was announced, protesting and marching through the streets of Pittsburgh, voicing their displeasure with the outcome.
“You want to know why there’s two Pittsburghs and why people feel the way they feel,” state Rep. Ed Gainey told the New Pittsburgh Courier just steps from the Courthouse moments after the verdict. “The reality is this—here’s a man who had no gun on him, had nothing on him, you’ve seen it, he had nothing on him, and he’s dead, and we’re tired of stories over and over just like this. And if you want to understand why they feel that there’s an injustice or there’s a tale of two cities, tonight is the night. It’s tonight.”
“This ruling ensured that there will be another Antwon,” said state Rep. Summer Lee. “Because if we really wanted to stop police brutality, if we really wanted to stop the incidences of Black children being shot in the back, then this cop would have been held accountable. But he wasn’t, so the cycle starts over again.”
With so much publicity surrounding the case, a jury was selected from Dauphin County, 200 miles away, though the county is 19 percent African American, six percent more than Allegheny County’s Black population percentage. Three African Americans were on the jury out of 12 (three additional alternates were White). They were bused from Dauphin County to Pittsburgh on Monday, March 18, and were sequestered throughout the trial.
The prosecution’s case was based on Rosfeld not having any true knowledge about the people in the Chevrolet Cruze that he pulled over for a felony traffic stop around 8:40 p.m. on June 19. Yes, he knew that the car and its occupants had been involved in a drive-by shooting in neighboring North Braddock 13 minutes earlier. But Rosfeld couldn’t have been sure there were any guns in the vehicle, couldn’t have been sure he knew who the alleged shooter or shooters were; he couldn’t have known anything more about the occupants of the car than anyone else, the prosecution argued.
“To just presume to call them murderers, it belies reality,” Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Fodi said during the prosecution’s closing argument. “The defendant, Michael Rosfeld, presumed, thinking that he knows this much about Antwon Rose. He was the judge, the jury and the executioner that day.”
Fodi added: “Everything Michael Rosfeld did on June 19 made the situation more dangerous.”
When Rosfeld pulled the car over, he ordered the driver to shut the car off and throw the keys out the window. The driver, Trevon Robertson, complied, along with the subsequent request to get out of the car and onto the ground.
Seconds later, as the video showed, filmed on a cell phone by Lashaun Livingston in a house near the scene, Rose and another man, Zaijuan Hester, opened their car doors and began to run away from the scene.
That’s when Rosfeld, who said he was focused on Robertson, turned and fired his service weapon three times in under a second, killing Rose, while Hester ran away unharmed.
“Sometimes a teenager runs,” Fodi told the jury during the closing argument. “Is it foolish? Yes. Does it deserve death? No.”
Fodi added: “There’s no need to use deadly force. Chase, get a K9 unit, helicopter, whatever you need to investigate…this is not reasonable police work by an officer…when their conduct is so indignant of the value of human life, this rises to murder.”
Near the conclusion of Fodi’s 27-minute closing argument for the prosecution, he gave the jury this food for thought: “Every time you point a deadly weapon at a vital part of someone’s body, you intend to kill.”
A medical examiner confirmed that Rosfeld’s shots hit the moving Rose in the elbow, face, and back.
But when it comes to “intent to kill,” the defense argued that there’s no way Rosfeld intended to kill anyone when he woke up the morning of June 19.
Matter of fact, Rosfeld was the first witness the defense called to the stand after the prosecution rested its case on day three of the trial, March 21. He testified that as he ordered Robertson to the ground, “that’s when both passenger doors open. I had to quickly turn and look. One of the suspects turned, pointed toward me with what I thought was a handgun. After thinking I thought I saw a handgun pointed at me, I turn and fire. Three rounds.”
Rosfeld later said, “You’re trained to fire until the threat is eliminated. I fired until they weren’t in my view anymore, until I no longer felt a threat.”
When Rosfeld’s attorney, Patrick Thomassey, pressed Rosfeld further about the incident, Rosfeld called Rose and Hester “dangerous felony suspects who just committed a violent crime,” and that he took an aggressive action because, “I’m not going to wait to be attacked.”
Under Pennsylvania law, a police officer is “justified in using deadly force only when he believes that such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury to himself or such other person.” The state law also says that an officer can use deadly force if the officer believes that “such force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by resistance or escape, and the person to be arrested has committed or attempted a forcible felony or is attempting to escape and possesses a deadly weapon.”
How can Rosfeld, at that time a sworn officer, not be justified in his actions, the defense argued.
“He knew they were fleeing felons from an attempted homicide scene. He knew that when he stopped the car,” Thomassey said. “He knows, in this car are murderers,” adding that “flight is circumstantial evidence of guilt,” and “under law, he (Rosfeld) doesn’t have to see a gun.”
Thomassey said during his closing argument that while there were two different videos of the shooting, it was Rosfeld who was only “eight yards away. Who had a better view of what was happening? Eight yards away (where Rosfeld was standing), or 180 feet away (where Livingston was filming), or two football fields away (where Peyton Deri was filming)?”
Thomassey then asked the jury: “Can you say this wasn’t justified? It’s the standard of what a reasonable police officer would do under the circumstances. Michael Rosfeld met every one of these criteria. There’s only one verdict here, ladies and gentlemen, it’s ‘not guilty.’”
The Pennsylvania law, along with the drive-by shooting that jurors learned happened moments before Rosfeld’s traffic stop, convinced the jury to bring back a verdict of not guilty in deliberations that lasted less than four hours.
Rawls, the jury foreman, was interviewed by a Harrisburg television station a few days after the March 22 verdict. He said that his fellow jurors could see a situation in which Rosfeld may have been in a heightened sense of tension, but it was due to the fact that there was a drive-by shooting moments prior (Hester fired nine shots out the rear window of the Cruze, striking a man. In the ordeal, the Cruze’s back window was shot out by return gunfire).
“Maybe he (Rosfeld) should have waited for a backup car,” Rawls said. “A backup car came, but by that time, the guys jumped out and ran. If the kids wouldn’t have jumped out and ran, we would have never been in this situation, so put onus on the young men in the car. Why did they jump and run?”
Rawls said he knew as he was reading the verdict, it would be met with vast disapproval in Pittsburgh’s African American community. “They have to accept the fact that the 12 people in that jury room did what was right,” he said. “Now, if you wanted me to do what was wrong and convict him on something that was wrong to please the neighborhood, then that’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.”
After the verdict was announced, a crowd of 100 descended on the Courthouse steps, demanding justice. They took to Grant Street, then proceeded to congregate on Penn Avenue in East Liberty, where a growing crowd marched into local businesses and made their presence felt.
On Saturday, March 23, a rally attended by 250 people was held at Freedom Corner, which was attended by Antwon Rose Sr., Rose’s father. Later in the day, protests were held again Downtown and then in Oakland.
Sunday, March 24 saw a rally and memorial held at the park where Rose used to play basketball in Hawkins Village in Rankin. Later, a faith-based rally was held at Warren United Methodist Church in the Hill District.
The largest post-verdict demonstration to date was held Monday, March 25, as 1,500 high school and college students marched through the streets of Downtown.
All the demonstrations were peaceful, but passionate. All had Black and White participants. All the participants were in disbelief that what Rosfeld did to Rose—on video, no less—was not punishable by law.
“It’s a sad day,” Pittsburgh Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle told the Courier from outside the Courthouse moments after the verdict was announced. “It’s another day that unfortunately proves that the system does not work for people who look like me, for Black and brown individuals.”
“We want to say that we’re surprised but we’re not surprised,” said Randall Taylor, former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member and current City Council District 9 candidate, who was also Downtown moments after the verdict. “We ought to be outraged, but this is Pittsburgh. People (are) getting tired of this…that’s why I wanted to come out tonight and just stand with the people and the community, at this horrible moment in Pittsburgh history.”