PITTSBURGH — A white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black 17-year-old last year goes on trial starting Tuesday in a case that could put him behind bars for life.
Lawyers for Michael Rosfeld, 30, are expected to argue that the June shooting of Antwon Rose II after a traffic stop in East Pittsburgh was justified. Prosecutors say Rosfeld, who is charged with criminal homicide, gave inconsistent statements about whether he believed Rose had a gun.
The shooting was captured on video by bystanders and posted online, triggering protests in the Pittsburgh area last year, including a late-night march that shut down a major highway.
“Antwon’s family is here seeking the justice they so deserve and to assure that the light of Antwon’s memory shines forever,” said a statement issued Tuesday by the family’s lawyer, Fred Rabner, who represents them in a wrongful death suit against Rosfeld, the borough and its mayor and police chief. The family statement called Rosfeld “hair-triggered” and “overly aggressive,” adding that his gun had “left an irreparable hole in their collective souls.”
A jury of six men and six women, including three African-Americans, was selected across the state in Harrisburg last week and will be sequestered in a Pittsburgh hotel for the duration of the trial, expected to take a week or more.
Rose, a 17-year-old high school student, had been the front-seat rider in an unlicensed taxicab when the back-seat passenger rolled down a window and shot at two men on the streets of North Braddock.
The shooter was Zaijuan Hester, 18, of Swissvale, who pleaded guilty Friday to aggravated assault and firearms violations for the shooting, which wounded a man in the abdomen. Hester told a judge that he — not Rose — did the shooting. A judge ruled Monday that jurors will hear evidence of that shooting but likely will not hear about a robbery that occurred several hours earlier.
The drive-by shooting in North Braddock led Rosfeld, of Verona, to pull over the unlicensed cab a short time later. While Rose ran from the vehicle, Rosfeld shot him three times — in the right side of his face, in his elbow and in his back — a bullet tearing through his heart and lung.
Authorities have said Rose had an empty ammunition clip in his pants when he was killed but not a weapon. Two handguns were recovered from inside the vehicle.
A police affidavit said Rosfeld gave conflicting statements to investigators, including that he saw something in Rose’s hand that Rosfeld thought was a gun.
“This observation caused him to step from behind the cover of his car door to acquire a better view,” police wrote in the affidavit. “He then fired his weapon.”
Investigators have said Rosfeld subsequently told the detectives he did not see a gun when the passenger ran.
“When confronted with this inconsistency, Rosfeld stated he saw something in the passenger’s hand but was not sure what it was,” police wrote. “In addition, Officer Rosfeld stated that he was not certain if the individual who had his arm pointed at him was still pointing at him when he fired the shots.”
During jury selection, defense attorneys repeatedly said jurors would be asked to determine whether the shooting was justified.
“He’s very, very remorseful. He’s not remorseful because he’s been charged. He legitimately is sad that this happened,” defense attorney Patrick Thomassey told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. “Mike kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this happened. I can’t believe that kid didn’t have a gun in his hand.'”
Rosfeld had been on the East Pittsburgh police force for just a few weeks after working for other departments over seven years.
After the shooting, East Pittsburgh shut down its police force and began to rely on state police to cover the territory.