Civil lawsuits, federal charges could await Rosfeld after acquittal
Michael Rosfeld could end up back in court despite a jury’s not guilty verdict.
The former East Pittsburgh police officer was acquitted of state charges Friday in the shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II. But Rosfeld already faces a civil federal lawsuit brought by Rose’s family and could face federal civil rights charges and additional civil lawsuits.
Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, said at minimum, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh will review the evidence used in the state’s case against Rosfeld to determine whether the former officer violated Rose’s civil rights.
“Whether or not they will decide to do anything about it, there’s no way of knowing,” Antkowiak said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh could not be reached Saturday.
Rosfeld shot 17-year-old Rose on June 19 as he ran from a felony traffic stop. Rosfeld had stopped the car in which Rose was a passenger because he thought it matched the description of a car suspected in a drive-by shooting minutes earlier.
It isn’t unheard of for a police officer who’s been cleared by the state court to be convicted on federal civil rights charges of excessive force, Antkowiak said.
It happened in the case involving Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991. The four police officers on trial weren’t convicted on state charges but two were found guilty on federal charges.
The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said this month they will review evidence in the Sacramento police shooting of Stephon Clark after local prosecutors declined to press charges. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Sacramento said such reviews are standard practice.
Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh decided not to press charges against the undercover Pittsburgh police officers involved in a brawl with members of the Pagans motorcycle club at a South Side bar last year.
Civil lawsuits pending
Rose’s parents — Michelle Kenney and Antwon Rose Sr. — filed a federal civil lawsuit in August against Rosfeld, East Pittsburgh, its police chief and mayor. The lawsuit alleges that Rose’s civil rights were violated, that Rosfeld’s actions were unlawful and unwarranted and that the lack of training and practices at the East Pittsburgh Police Department caused, in part, the teen’s death.
The mayor, council and police chief knew of Rosfeld’s “erratic behavior and lack of training,” the lawsuit alleges, but failed to vet the new officer.
Rosfeld was sworn in as an East Pittsburgh Police officer the same night he shot and killed Rose. He had worked at other area departments before East Pittsburgh, including the University of Pittsburgh Police Department, as a part-time officer for Oakmont from 2011 to 2013 and as a part-timer for Harmar about five years ago.
“Make no mistake, there is nothing reasonable or appropriate about the manner Officer Rosfeld took Antwon’s life, and we will unequivocally prove that in Federal Court,” Fred Rabner, an attorney for Rose’s family, said.
Rabner and his legal team filed a motion Saturday asking the federal court to lift a stay on the civil lawsuit put in place while the criminal case unfolded. Rosfeld’s attorney in the civil lawsuit could not be reached Saturday.
Rose’s parents filed a lawsuit in county court late last year against the University of Pittsburgh, contending the university is partially responsible for their son’s death by not firing Rosfeld when he worked for campus police between 2012 and early 2018. The university has argued it is not responsible.
S. Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who was by the Rose family’s side throughout the trial, made it clear after the verdict Friday that family is moving ahead with its civil suit.
“We will also focus our efforts on holding those accountable for Antwon’s death through our civil suit,” Merritt said. “The fight for justice is never easy, but we will make every effort to protect the memory and legacy of Antwon Rose.”
The outcome in civil court could be different than criminal court because the burden of proof is different. In criminal court, juries must find proof of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, Antkowiak said. In civil court, the burden of proof is a preponderance of evidence.
Experts: Juries often side with police
The jury appeared to believe Rosfeld’s testimony that he felt threatened as two teens ran from him, legal experts told the Tribune-Review hours after a jury acquitted the former police officer. Antkowiak called his testimony a “significant factor” in the acquittal.
University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris agreed. In use-of-force cases involving police, a jury is tasked with deciding if Rosfeld has a “reasonable” fear for his safety and his life, Harris said.
“Under the law, he doesn’t have to be correct, only reasonable,” Harris said. “The jury believed Rosfeld’s claim that he was reasonable in fear for his safety and his life.”
Harris said the speed of the verdict indicated the jury didn’t have a problem reaching that conclusion.
“If there was any reason to find him guilty, the debate would have gone on much longer,” Harris said.
The not guilty verdict did not surprise Antkowiak or Harris.
Convictions are not common among cases involving police facing similar charges nationally.
“Juries have a very difficult time putting themselves in a position to second guess a police officer,” Antkowiak said.
Regardless of the verdict, “it’s a no-win situation for anybody,” Antkowiak said.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .