December 16, 2018
A Pittsburgh-area cop walked free after being charged with killing Antwon Rose. New data show just how rare that was.
By Matt Stroud
Photo by Mark Dixon
Eight days after East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld shot an unarmed black teenager, Antwon Rose Jr., in the back, killing him, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala filed homicide charges against the cop. “I find that Rosfeld’s actions were intentional,” Zappala said during a press conference in June. The charges — uncommon in the case of an on-duty officer shooting a suspect — pointed toward a criminal justice system seeking to hold an alleged killer accountable regardless of whether he wore a police uniform. Social justice groups praised the decision. Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, hailed the charges as a “necessary step for accountability.”
But then Rosfeld’s status as a police officer seemed to play in his favor. When the county filed homicide charges against him, a judge decided that Rosfeld should be allowed to walk free; he never stepped foot in jail. The judge assigned to the case, Senior District Judge Regis Welsh, played down the seemingly lenient decision to WTAE. “I’m not going to defend myself to anyone except to God and the president judge,” Welsh said. The response in the social justice community shifted: Fred Rabner, an attorney representing Rose’s family, spoke out against the decision: Rosfeld will “go home without paying a dollar out of his pocket,” Rabner said, condemning the decision at a press conference in June. Debra Jones, who witnessed Rose being shot, asked Triblive, “What makes him so different just because he’s a police officer?” Defense Attorney Ryan Tutera, unconnected to the case, told KDKA that the decision was “highly unusual.”
Data compiled by Postindustrial show just how unusual it was.
An analysis of 114 Allegheny County homicide cases brought by the District Attorney’s Office in 2016 and 2017 showed that more than 99 percent of homicide defendants had bail denied.
Why did Rosfeld’s case fall into that 1 percent? Why was he treated differently?
“Only reason is because he is a cop,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center and an adjunct professor in prison law and litigation at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “Can’t think of any other one.”
When defendants are charged with serious crimes, the judge overseeing their case has a number of options: They can jail the defendant by denying bail — a choice that forces the defendant to sit behind bars while they await trial — or they can require the defendant to pay a bail amount before they’re released. Bail can either be “secured,” requiring a defendant to pay a percentage, or all, of the overall bail amount before they’re allowed to leave; or it can be “unsecured,” requiring no money down but instead a signed document from the defendant agreeing to pay a certain amount if they do not show up to subsequent court hearings.
Defendants can also be released without any financial conditions by agreeing to appear as required or agreeing to certain conditions like electronic monitoring.
Among those 114 Allegheny County homicide cases in 2016 and 2017, all but two defendants were denied bail — meaning that they were jailed at the time of their arrest.
Welsh set Rosfeld’s bail at $250,000 unsecured. Rosfeld didn’t have to put up a dime to be released.
With hearings scheduled for Rosfeld as soon as December 20 in preparation for a trial date of February 26, 2019, Rosfeld’s case continues to wind through the court system toward its eventual conclusion. And just last week, an Allegheny County grand jury admonished, in two reports (1, 2), officers and their union president for actively working to stymie an investigation into another controversial police-involved shooting. Preferential treatment in cases of alleged officer misconduct is front and center — and will continue to be as Rosfeld’s case moves forward.
But David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, host of the Criminal Injustice podcast, and an author of several books on policing procedure, cautions that Rosfeld’s critics shouldn’t use his case to argue for more stringent rules and bail practices.
“Arguably, Rosfeld was treated fairly,” Harris told Postindustrial.
Since he has no criminal record to speak of, his case is prominent, and he’s willingly turned himself in to face charges in this case, there’s no indication that he’s a flight risk.
“The argument here should not be that Rosfeld needs an enormous bail and needs to be kept behind bars until trial,” Harris said. “What we should be asking ourselves is, ‘Why are all these other people being held without bail?’”
Rosfeld isn’t the only one who poses no flight risk, Harris said.
“The point,” he went on, “is that others should be given the same set of privileges Rosfeld has been given.”
Matt Stroud, an accomplished journalist and book author, is a former staff writer with Bloomberg and the Associated Press who has written for Esquire, Harper’s, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.
- Dig more into Postindustrial’s homicide data here. Case numbers under “All cases” refer to Offense Tracking Numbers or OTNs; look those up here. Track upcoming court dates in Rosfeld’s case here.
- This story was written and reported by Postindustrial’s executive editor, Matt Stroud. It was edited by managing editor Annie Siebert. Freelance journalist Joshua Vaughn contributed.
- Questions? Comments? Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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