Philadelphia, PA – Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has asked a judge to establish new case law, then apply it retroactively, to increase their odds of securing a murder conviction against a now-former police officer who fatally shot a fleeing felon in 2017.
In a recent motion, Assistant District Attorney Tracy Tripp alleged that Pennsylvania’s current police use-of-force law violates accused criminals’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and that it also violates the State Constitution, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
However, current law explicitly allows officers to shoot fleeing felons who pose a danger to the community.
The district attorney’s office specifically took issue with that section of the law that says cops can shoot suspects who “committed or attempted a forcible felony or is attempting to escape and possesses a deadly weapon, or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury unless arrested without delay.”
Tripp argued that the way the law was written authorizes law enforcement to use deadly force in certain situations “even if he does not believe such force is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The district attorney’s office said it did not ask the court to rule on the constitutionality of the use-of-force law, but that it did request that the judge instruct jurors to “interpret the statute in a constitutional manner” with regards to the third-degree murder charge against former Philadelphia Police Officer Ryan Pownall, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Pownall’s attorneys blasted the prosecutor’s ploy in a scathing response on Wednesday.
“This may be the first time in Pennsylvania’s history that an elected district attorney intentionally ignored the law in bringing charges against a peace officer, and then sought judicial intervention in changing the law before a trial on those unlawfully brought charges,” attorney Fortunato Perri wrote, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Perri said that the district attorney’s office was attempting to change the law “on the eve” of Pownall’s trial, in a “truly unimaginable” and “thinly veiled attempt to bolster its weak case,” according to the paper.
Temple University law professor Jules Epstein said that “fundamental due process issues” would be created if the judge opts to alter the law and to apply those changes retroactively to Pownall’s case, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz noted that allegations of civil rights violations can be addressed through civil lawsuits, and said that states are not mandated to establish criminal penalties for alleged violations of the constitution, according to the paper.
Pownall is the first Philadelphia police officer to be charged with murder for a line-of-duty encounter in nearly 20 years, WHYY reported.
Prosecutors initially asked a grand jury to charge Pownall with criminal homicide in the death of 30-year-old David Jones, which would have allowed a trial jury to consider a range of offenses, including first-degree murder.
The judge ultimately lowered the charge to third-degree murder, WHYY reported.
Officer Pownall, 37, was fired by the department in September of 2017, after an internal investigation determined that he had committed “serious policy violations” during the altercation with Jones, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross told WPHT at the time.
The incident occurred on June 8, 2017, when Officer Pownall spotted Jones illegally riding a dirt bike and cutting through lanes of traffic on Whitaker Avenue, CNN reported.
During the traffic stop that followed, Officer Pownall felt a gun in Jones’ waistband, at which point Jones began fighting with him and refused to comply, WPHT reported.
“[Pownall] encountered someone who is armed with an unlawful pistol, pulled that pistol from his waist, a struggle ensued,” Pownall’s attorney, Fortunato Perri told CNN.
During the fight, Officer Pownall drew his weapon and attempted to shoot Jones in the head, but the gun jammed, according to court documents.
At that point, Jones broke away from him and began to run away. The officer opened fire, hitting Jones twice in the back.
Jones was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Investigators determined that Officer Pownall’s first attempted shot – which jammed – was justified, but that the subsequent rounds were not, WPHT reported.
Commissioner Ross acknowledged that Officer Pownall believed Jones was still armed when he opened fire, although Jones had tossed his weapon as he was running away.
“Because Jones never looked back at Pownall and had nothing in his hands, he posed no imminent threat to Pownall,” the commissioner said, despite his understanding that Officer Pownall thought Jones still had a gun. “Jones also used poor judgment as well when he carried a gun illegally, rode a motorcycle that is illegal to operate on a city street and refused to comply with Pownall’s orders.”
Jones was prohibited from possessing firearms due to his prior felony convictions, The Inquirer reported.
Krasner said that surveillance video showed that Jones was 10 feet away from the officer when he was hit by the second round, and was 35 feet away from the officer when he was struck by the third round, WPHT reported.
“Jones was searched at the scene, no gun was recovered on his person,” Krasner said.
His discarded gun was located nearby, however.
“At the time of Jones' flight, Jones was not a danger to anyone," he added, according to CNN. "Jones' death was not necessary to secure the apprehension of Jones."
Krasner said that bringing the charges against Pownall was a demonstration in “applying justice even-handedly,” and said it was “regrettably unusual” that officers aren’t criminal charged more often, The Inquirer reported.
“This is a city, like many other American cities, where there has not been accountability for activity by police officers in uniform, especially when that activity involves violence against civilians," the former defense lawyer lamented.
Krasner also touched on the issue of race with regards to the incident, according to CNN.
"What I see is that we have a case in which the officer is white. I can see that we have a case in which the man who was shot to death is black," he said. "I cannot tell you and will not tell you that I have any particular reason to believe that this officer was a racist or that this officer was operating from any kind of racial animosity."
Pownall, who served the department for 12 years, was also charged with endangering another person and possession of an instrument of crime for firing his service weapon in the direction of traffic.
Pownall’s family, Perri, and the Fraternal Order of Police blasted Krasner in the wake of his announcement.
“Today’s meritless indictment clearly illustrates a DA who had an anti-law enforcement agenda,” FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby said during a press conference, according to WPHT.
“Officer Pownall was justified in his actions that night,” Perri agreed, according to CNN. "The evidence will clearly show that based on the facts and circumstance that will be presented at a trial, that he was legally completely justified in his actions and he will be exonerated of all charges."
Jones’ father, Thomas Jones, cited Pownall’s involvement in an earlier officer-involved shooting as a “big red flag” that showed a history of him making “a mistake on the job,” CNN reported.
That incident took place in July of 2010, when Officer Pownall and his partner encountered recently-released prison inmate Carnell Williams-Carney.
Williams-Carney was armed with a gun, and the officers opened fire as he attempted to run away from them.
One round struck Williams-Carney in the back, paralyzing him below the waist.
“I understand some people make mistakes,” Thomas told CNN. “If it was your first time, maybe, you know, it was a mistake on the job. But two times the same situation? Really. That raises a big red flag."
The shooting was determined to be justified, not a mistake.
In 2018, the City of Philadelphia entered into a $1 million settlement with Jones’ family outside of court in lieu of a civil lawsuit, WHYY reported.
Pownall’s murder trial is slated to begin in January of 2020, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.