In a brief filed Thursday, city attorneys argue that the language in Pennsylvania law is unconstitutional because it allows officers to use lethal force against people fleeing arrest who are not considered dangerous.
(Philadelphia) – The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office wants the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to order all judges in the state to change their instructions to jurors about when police officers can legally use lethal force.
In a brief filed Thursday, city attorneys argue that the language in Pennsylvania law is unconstitutional because it allows officers to use lethal force on people fleeing arrest who are not considered dangerous.
If the pre-trial appeal is allowed, the jury instructions should conform to the federal standard set out in the United States Constitution, which is rooted in a 1985 United States Supreme Court case. He ruled that police cannot use lethal force to arrest a fleeing suspect unless there is an imminent threat of death or injury to the officer and others.
The unusual claim, the first step in a potentially lengthy legal process, comes months before former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall was tried on third degree murder – a procedure that has already been considerably delayed through legal challenge.
Pownall, who is white, shot dead David Jones, 30, who was black, after arresting him for a traffic stop in June 2017. Pownall’s lawyers argue that state law justifies the shots that their client shot Jones as he was fleeing Pownall.
It was the first time a serving Philadelphia police officer had been charged with murder in nearly 20 years.
“It seems to us that there has to be one standard of justice,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said at a virtual press conference. “We cannot have a state law that encourages and incites police officers who violate the constitution while killing people. “
A bipartisan group of nearly 70 criminal justice leaders from across the country, including police chiefs, attorneys general and elected prosecutors, filed an amicus brief in support of the prosecutor’s appeal.
Fortuanto Perri Jr., one of Pownall’s attorneys, declined to comment on Thursday’s brief. He said the court challenge raised by the district attorney helped prove his defense. “It is clear that the law in force justifies his conduct. The district attorney’s office decided to ignore the current law by initiating this prosecution, ”he told reporters last January.
The State Supreme Court agreed to hear the prosecutor’s appeal in April.
It could be months before a decision is rendered. Pownall’s lawyers will have an opportunity to respond to Thursday’s brief. The court then usually arranges a hearing for pleadings before considering the case in its entirety.
Additionally, there is usually no timeline or deadline for judges to make a decision, although Pownall’s trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-November before Judge Barbara A. McDermott of the Court of Pleas. common, according to court documents.
In late 2019, prosecutors filed a petition asking McDermott to change his instructions to jurors as to when an officer can use lethal force, claiming the state’s language was unconstitutional as written.
In an opinion delivered in January 2020, the veteran judge rejected the request, claiming that it did not have the power to “rewrite parts of a criminal law”, as this “would replace the will of the people as placed in the hands of the legislature”.
The district attorney’s office appealed McDermott’s decision, ultimately culminating in Thursday’s brief, which comes after the Pennsylvania Superior Court dismissed a similar claim last year on the grounds that it failed lacked jurisdiction to consider the appeal.
Prosecutors said Jones had an illegal gun in his belt when Pownall arrested him while Jones was mountain biking in Juniata Park. But they also say Jones had already dropped the gun and was running away when Pownall shot him twice in the back.
A grand jury determined that Pownall was not in danger and should not have fired his service weapon, concluding that Jones’ death was unwarranted.
In addition to third degree murder, Pownall is charged with reckless endangerment of another person and possession of a criminal instrument. The 39-year-old has been on bail since October 2018, when the charges against him were reduced, sparing him the possibility of being convicted of first degree murder, which is accompanied by ‘an automatic life sentence in Pennsylvania.
Krasner’s office has since charged another former officer, Eric Ruch, who is white, with murder Dennis Plowden, 25, who was black, after a high-speed chase in East Germantown in December 2017.
Plowden was unarmed.
WHYY is the primary public media station serving the Philadelphia area, including Delaware, South Jersey, and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared onWHY.org.