Trial Begins for Man Paralyzed at Traffic Stop

Jurors hearing the case of a Shaler man accused of assaulting police officers must decide whether he did anything wrong, not whether the officers followed proper procedure, a prosecutor told an Allegheny County jury on Tuesday.

Leon D. Ford, 21, is charged with putting the officers in harm's way, fleeing and several traffic violations in connection with a traffic stop about 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2012, in Highland Park.

Ford became paralyzed from the waist down when an officer shot him during the incident. He uses a wheelchair.

“This is a story about choices and consequences,” Assistant District Attorney Robert Schupansky told the panel of nine women and five men in his opening statement. Three are black. “Those tragic consequences were brought about by his actions.”

Ford's supporters, family members and members of the media packed Common Pleas Judge Donald E. Machen's courtroom. The judge did not allow standing room, and an overflow of supporters spilled into the hallway.

During a suppression hearing before the trial began, Pittsburgh police Detective Kelly Knerr testified that Ford asked her if anyone else was hurt in the incident when she went to UPMC Presbyterian to take his picture and collect fingerprint samples.

“Yes. I believe the officer may have a broken hand,” Knerr said she told him.

Knerr said Ford responded: “Can you tell him I apologize? I was scared. They were saying my license wasn't me.”

The defense wanted to keep Ford's statement out of the trial, in part because he was not permitted access to his lawyer and had not been read his rights. Machen permitted it.

Fred Rabner, Ford's defense attorney, will give his opening statement when the trial resumes at 1:45 p.m. The trial is expected to last about five days. If the jury convicts him, Ford faces as much as 3½ to seven years in prison.

The high-profile case has sparked several racially charged protests and petitions demanding that authorities drop charges against Ford, who is black.

Pittsburgh police Officers Andrew Miller and Michael Kosko said they pulled Ford over at Stanton Avenue and Farragut Street in Highland Park for running a stop sign. The officers took Ford's license and registration but suspected that he was someone else, so they radioed for Officer David Derbish.

Ford sat in his car for nearly 20 minutes before Derbish arrived. When Derbish looked inside Ford's car, he said, he saw a bulge on Ford's leg that he thought was a gun.

Police said Ford ignored an order to get out of the car, so they tried to remove him with force. They said Ford then began to drive off, and Derbish jumped into the passenger side to avoid being dragged.

Derbish, who is white, said Ford hit him several times during a struggle and tried to push him out of the car before he opened fire. Derbish shot Ford five times.

Police found no weapon on Ford or inside the vehicle.

An internal Pittsburgh police report concluded the officers failed to follow procedure and recommended discipline and remedial training. It said the situation could have been avoided had Ford followed the officers' instructions.

Rabner has said his client did nothing wrong and responded to an escalating situation the officers created.

Free on bond since his arrest, Ford filed a federal lawsuit against the city, police officers involved in the stop and former and current police chiefs in federal court, alleging they violated his civil rights. No trial date is set.

Copyright 2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service