Lawyers: Trial into police shooting is one of perspective

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The trial of a police officer accused of violating the civil rights of a man who was shot and paralyzed as he sped away from a traffic stop is one of perspective, attorneys for both sides told a federal jury in opening statements.

The attorney for Officers David Derbish and Andrew Miller said in his opening Wednesday that the jury must look at the case from the officers’ standpoint.

Miller is accused of assault and battery for trying to drag Leon Ford from the car, while Derbish is accused of using excessive force in shooting Ford during the 2012 traffic stop.

One of Ford’s attorneys, Fred Rabner, likened the traffic stop to “Keystone Cops” in his opening statement on Tuesday.

“This case is about poor police work,” Rabner said. “Poor police work got Leon in that wheelchair.”

Ford’s attorneys say police wrongly pulled over Ford and did so primarily because another officer mistook Ford for Lamont Ford Jr., a wanted gang member with a similar face, build and age. The men are not related, and Lamont Ford died in a crash while being chased by police in 2014, when he was wanted on weapons charges.

Miller was initially involved in the stop; Derbish was not. Miller called Derbish to the scene believing he had dealt with Lamont Ford in the past and could clarify Leon Ford’s identity. When Derbish told the other officers he couldn’t be sure, they demanded Ford get out of the car so he could be frisked, in part because Derbish claimed to see a “bulge” in Ford’s sweat pants.

Ford, who had no criminal record, didn’t have a gun. His attorneys said he became alarmed because police refused to believe he wasn’t Lamont Ford, despite producing a license, vehicle registration and insurance card confirming his identity.

Ford, who is suing the officers, and his attorneys also dispute that he purposely sped from the scene. They argue the car was knocked into gear and Ford unwittingly stepped on the gas as Miller tried to pull him from the vehicle and Derbish, partially kneeling on the passenger seat, worked with Miller to get him out of the car.

Attorney Joseph Santarone Jr., representing the officers, reminded the jury that despite the emotional aspects of the case the civil accusations against the officers are cut-and-dried: Did Miller assault or batter Ford in trying unsuccessfully to pull him from the car, and did Derbish use excessive force in shooting Ford?

Santarone told the jury Derbish “feared for his life” as the car pulled away with him in it and the legal standard for determining whether the officer was right to use deadly force is whether his actions were reasonable, based on what he knew.

The officers are expected to testify in what is scheduled to be a three-week trial.

The city’s Citizen Police Review Board concluded the officers contributed to the shooting by not following proper procedures. It said the shooting could have been prevented had Ford obeyed the officers and gotten out of his car.

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