Supporters begin marching Downtown, East Liberty to protest verdict that came in less than three hours
By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Following a trial that took less than a week, a jury deliberated fewer than four hours before deciding that former East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld was not guilty of murdering 17-year-old Antwon Rose II. The unarmed teen was shot in the back as he fled a traffic stop.
Rose’s mother, Michelle Kenney, was stoic as she left the Allegheny County Courthouse Friday night. She said nothing as she was escorted to a vehicle about a half block away. Other Rose supporters were more vocal, however. and let their disgust at the verdict be known. As Kenney’s attorney, Lee Merritt was addressing reporters, a large group of Rose supporters emerged singing from the courthouse.
“What side are you on, my people, what side are you on?” they sang. “Antwon was a freedom fighter who taught us how to fight. We’re gonna fight both day and night until we get it right!”
A brief protest march of about 75 people trailed down Ross St., turning on Forbes and ending at the City County Building on Grant Street. Between 10:30 and 11 p.m., marchers began a second protest in East Liberty, which was still going on at midnight. While many in attendance said a not guilty verdict for a white cop who killed a black teen wasn’t completely unexpected. But the news hit hard, nonetheless and left many wondering if a pendulum that hasn’t seen a police officer convicted of killing or seriously injuring an African American would ever swing in their favor.
“The reality is this,” a bewildered and emotional state Rep. Ed Gainey told reporters. “I was sitting at home with my young son, my son is nine-years-old, and we’ve been here before over and over again. This is not something new. This is not something new from 2018 or from 1990. This is not something new in 1980; not something new in 1970; not something new from 1960. This is something that has been going on for decades.
“We as a society have to stand up to it. I don’t care what went on before [Rose’s traffic stop], all I know is that we have an unarmed African-American male dead. If you are a father … you worry. You worry!”
As he spoke, Gainey became more emotional and more emphatic with every word. “Yes, we want the cops to come home safe, but we want our children to come home safe! We need that! This has been going on for decades! The pain that you feel today, is the pain that we’ve felt for decades! But no one wants to understand that. They think we’re just out here protesting just to protest, but we’re not doing that! What we’re saying is that we want life for our children and when we’re not done right, we want humanity to make us right!”
Rose was shot to death by Rosfeld on June 18 at about 8:30 p.m. Rose was a passenger in a Chevy Cruz that matched the description of a car used in an earlier drive-by. Rosfeld stopped the car, which had a back window shot out, and removed the driver from the vehicle. Rose and another passenger, Zaijuan Hester, both fled the vehicles. Rosfeld fired quickly after the pair left the vehicle, striking Rose in the back. Rose’s death was followed by several effective protests that shut down city streets and the Parkway East for several hours.
Rosfeld’s attorney Patrick Thomassey claimed the shooting was justified within the guidelines of the law. Prosecutors said Rosfeld’s use of deadly force was not justified and that Rose posed no danger to the officer or anyone else. But during his own testimony this week, Rosfeld said he shot Rose to “protect myself and the community.” Rosfeld claimed he thought Rose had a weapon. However, video evidence of the scene seemed to contradict Rosfeld’s account.
The case was heard by a jury that was picked in Dauphin County in Central Pennsylvania because of pretrial publicity, the trial judge decided. The jury has been sequestered in town since Tuesday and were scheduled to deliberate over the weekend if they didn’t reach a verdict today. They took just a few hours. Merritt said he was surprised by the quick verdict.
“I think there was enough evidence in this case to merit longer deliberation and deeper examination given the gravity of the situation,” he said. “I said repeatedly throughout this trial that the humanity of Antwon Rose wasn’t put on display. If [the jury] were valuing the life of a beautiful, intelligent and valuable member of this community, then it should have been afforded more time.”
Merritt told reporters afterward that while the verdict was expected, it was still tough to hear.
“Suffice to say that the conclusion of this jury, not guilty on all counts for the murder of Antwon Rose is very disappointing for his family,” Merritt said. “Unfortunately, I’ve had to walk a lot of families through verdicts that were contrary [to the evidence]. Antwon Rose was shot in the back. He was unarmed and he did not pose a threat to the officer or the community.
“And the verdict today says that is OK. That that is acceptable behavior from a police officer. And on behalf of the Rose family and the African American community and lovers of justice, we say it’s not OK. Obviously this needs to change.”
Merritt said that the pending federal lawsuit alleging that Rosfeld denied Antwon Rose of his civil rights the night he shot the teen in his back will not only hold Rosfeld accountable, but also institutions.
“When you have institutionally racist systems … in favor of law enforcement,” Merritt said. “You can never really get justice.”