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City officer says shooting was an act of self-defense

| Thursday, Oct. 24, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

A Pittsburgh police officer testified Wednesday that he acted in self-defense when he fired a volley of bullets at a Brighton Heights man who died of gunshot wounds.

The officer, Lawrence Mercurio, said he repeatedly warned the man, Michael Hunter Jr., 24, to drop a .357 revolver.

Mercurio, testifying at an open inquest into the shooting, said the man aimed the weapon first at the windshield of a car with two plainclothes police officers, Martin Devine and Scott Love, and then targeted Mercurio.

Later witnesses, however, gave differing accounts, saying Hunter had been either pointing the gun to the ground or in the air when he was shot. The inquest has been continued to Nov. 4.

Paul Goltz, a lawyer representing Hunter's family, said he would call other witnesses to testify next month and contradict some of Mercurio's testimony. He said one witness is expected to testify Nov. 4 that Hunter had his arms in the air and was trying to surrender when he was shot.

Mercurio, a member of the police canine unit, said he feared for his life when he encountered Hunter shortly after 4:25 p.m. on Sept. 7 at a baseball field in Manchester. Police said they were trying to arrest Hunter for a drug deal.

Mercurio said that when he saw Hunter was armed with a gun, he ducked behind an unmarked police Chevrolet Tahoe sport utility vehicle with his police dog. When he turned, he saw Hunter pointing the gun directly at him, Mercurio said.

"I can't say what his body position was," Mercurio testified. "I can say it was like looking down the Liberty tubes looking at that gun."

Mercurio said he fired his .40-caliber Glock pistol five times, until he saw Hunter fall. He added that he's not sure whether he or the other officers felled Hunter.

Hunter died later that evening at Allegheny General Hospital, Mercurio said.

Shaun Ladham, a forensic pathologist, testified that Hunter had two bullet wounds, one in the right side that traveled across his body and another in his left upper thigh. Hunter also had bite marks from the police dog on his right leg, Ladham testified.

A 16-year-old boy and 18-year-old girl, whose names were not provided, testified that they had gone to the Manchester neighborhood to buy drugs that evening. They said a man threw the drugs in their vehicle in exchange for $60.

Police stopped the boy and confiscated the drugs and then began searching for the drug dealer.

Mercurio said Hunter fit the description and was wearing similar clothing. Mercurio said he found Hunter walking in a baseball field along the 1200 block of Juniata Street. Mercurio said he radioed for the other officers.

Mercurio said he realized he was in danger when the man pulled a weapon and aimed it at him. Mercurio added that he warned the man to drop the weapon "numerous times."

"At that very point, I was in fear for my life, the lives of the other officers and the lives of the other citizens that were around," Mercurio said.

The inquest in the county coroner's office is standard practice for all police shootings that result in a death.

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