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Prosecutors drop charges against man Pittsburgh police shot, paralyzed

| Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, 3:00 p.m.
Leon Ford is all smiles after a jury rendered a partial verdict finding Ford not guilty of aggravated assault at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Monday, Sept. 15, 2014. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, that his office will not retry Ford on charges on which the jury deadlocked.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Leon Ford is all smiles after a jury rendered a partial verdict finding Ford not guilty of aggravated assault at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Monday, Sept. 15, 2014. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, that his office will not retry Ford on charges on which the jury deadlocked.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Friday he'll drop remaining charges against a man shot and paralyzed by a Pittsburgh policeman, in part because doing so could help improve relations between police and communities.

“It is my hope that not proceeding to a second trial will assist both (Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay) and our community in this regard,” Zappala said.

Leon Ford, 21, of Garfield pressed for Zappala's decision since a jury in September acquitted him of aggravated assault but deadlocked on five other counts related to a November 2012 traffic stop in Highland Park during which an officer shot and paralyzed him. Ford remained charged with recklessly endangering another person, resisting arrest and escape.

Ford's lawyers in November urged Zappala for a decision because, they said, their client needed surgery to remove a bullet lodged near his spine. They said Ford risked life-threatening infection unless he made a quick decision.

Ford, who had that surgery last month, said he had “a lot of feelings” about Zappala's decision but declined further comment.

“We're pleased with the decision, and sometimes it takes a long time to get to the right decision,” said Monte Rabner, who is representing Ford in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, Officer David Derbish who shot him, and two other officers involved in the traffic stop. “We're not judging that it took this long. We are and Leon is happy with the decision.”

Rabner said the civil case against the city, Derbish and the other officers “will move on.”

McLay said he respected Zappala's decision.

“I empathize with DA Zappala,” McLay said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect (for) the prosecutorial judgment of our District Attorney.”

Howard McQuillan, Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police president, said, “This decision will not sit well with my membership; however it is definitely not unexpected.”

Zappala said he decided to withdraw the charges in part because members of the community raised concerns about police training and tactics. An internal police report said the officers did not follow proper procedure when they pulled Ford over in his silver Infiniti on Nov. 11, 2012, and held him there for 16 minutes before attempting to pull him out. During the struggle to remove him, the car accelerated. Derbish jumped in and shot Ford five times.

Zappala said Ford's injuries would serve as a deterrent to similar conduct.

Zappala spokesman Mike Manko said neither he nor the district attorney would comment further.

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said Zappala's decision to take into consideration the impact on the community was “sensible, appropriate and lawful.”

“Prosecutors have an enormous amount of discretion on who to investigate, who to prosecute and, in this case, who to reprosecute,” Burkoff said. “In exercising that discretion, they can consider a lot of things, one of which is the impact on the community. That is rarely the only consideration a prosecutor uses, but it is often considered.”

News of Zappala's decision spread quickly via social media and within the city's black community. Ford is black, and the officers involved in the stop are white. The case polarized the community and led to several rallies in support of Ford.

Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said she was “ecstatic for Leon,” and that in dismissing the charges, Zappala paved the way for improved police-community relations.

“It's a great thing for Leon and a greater thing for the community as a whole,” Fisher said.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, agreed.

“I think it's long overdue, but better late than never,” Pittinger said.

Zappala's four-month delay, Pittinger said, fueled some of the negative feelings the community had toward police, but his decision “removes a huge obstacle.”

The topic of whether Zappala would retry Ford came up at three community meetings for better police-community relations that McLay attended last year, said Tim Stevens, executive director of the Black Political Empowerment Project.

While Zappala's inaction did not inhibit progress in those meetings, Stevens said the decision “will further that discussion.”

Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze, whose district includes a wide swath of the city's predominantly black neighborhoods, called Zappala's move “a step forward.”

“Maybe the justice system is starting to see the world differently,” he said. “In the past, it seems that sometimes, in these kinds of incidents, the victims are always wrong and the police officers are always right. This case indicates perhaps something else afoot was wrong.”

Soon after taking the helm as the city's top law enforcement official, McLay assigned Derbish to desk duty and confirmed that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania were looking into whether to charge Derbish criminally. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment, but McLay said the decision not to refile charges is unrelated to the question of whether the officers' use of force was legal.

“The USDOJ examination will now serve to evaluate whether the civil rights of Mr. Ford were violated,” McLay said.

At trial, Derbish said he shot Ford because he felt his life was in danger.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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