Race considered key factor in selection of Rosfeld trial jurors
Former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld was charged with criminal homicide in June, after he shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Antwon Rose. (Allegheny County District Attorney/AP)
Jury selection starts Tuesday in the homicide trial of Michael Rosfeld, the white police officer who fatally shot black unarmed teen Antwon Rose last summer in East Pittsburgh.
Jurors will be chosen in Dauphin County, where Harrisburg is located, before traveling to Allegheny County for the trial, which is set to begin Tuesday, March 19. Rosfeld requested the outside jury, arguing that local jurors could not be fair due to media coverage of the shooting and subsequent protests.
Indeed, the stakes are high in jury selection. For one thing, Philadelphia-based jury consultant Mark Calzaretta said, in a case like Rosfeld’s, much will depend on how jurors view video of the shooting.
“Really, what’s interesting about it is how someone can look at a video, and two different people can see two totally different things,” Calzaretta said.
Calzaretta added that a crucial factor in winning a verdict is deciding who should not be on the jury panel.
Picking a jury takes place during a courtroom procedure called “voir dire.” The judge or attorneys pose questions to potential jurors, who usually have been selected at random from voter and vehicle registration lists.
Calzaretta said attorneys often ask questions they think will reveal a juror’s potential bias.
“What they do in their free time, hobbies, experiences, where they get their news, what magazines they read, what newspapers they read,” Calzaretta said.
In the Rosfeld case, each side has proposed about 40 questions. They ask, for example, whether jurors have family or friends who work in law enforcement and whether jurors have any views about the police that would affect their ability to be fair.
Presiding judge Alexander Bicket will decide which questions to allow.
University of Pittsburgh law professor and 90.5 WESA legal analyst David Harris said most jurors, but not all, are biased in favor of the police.
“They’ve been taught and socialized since they were little that police officers are good, they’re there to help you, and they protect you,” Harris said. “But [that] isn’t true for everybody. And it’s not true to the experience of many black Americans.”
Kyle Fogarty shows a memorial card after leaving the funeral for Antwon Rose Jr. on Monday, June 25, 2018 in Swissvale, Pa. Rose was fatally shot by a police officer seconds after he fled a traffic stop June 19, in the suburb of East Pittsburgh. Fogarty said he was a classmate of Rose and had to attend the service. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Rose’s death sparked weeks of local demonstrations, which decried the shooting as an example of racially biased policing.
Rosfeld’s attorney, Patrick Thomassey, argued that the resulting tension would prevent a jury from Allegheny County from being fair.
“People in this county, I think, would be afraid to sit on a jury in this case,” the lawyer said after a hearing in September.
The protests were peaceful for the most part, but in January, Bicket granted Rosfeld’s motion to draw the jury from elsewhere. The judge said pretrial publicity would compromise the objectivity of local jurors.
The state Supreme Court designated Dauphin County as the site for jury selection.
The central Pennsylvania county has racial demographics similar to Allegheny County. And the the racial makeup of a jury is important, according to Wake Forest University law professor Ron Wright.
“Everywhere I go and talk to lawyers,” he said, “everywhere I go, they say, ‘Oh yeah, it matters.'”
Wright has conducted empirical research that shows prosecutors in North Carolina remove twice as many potential black jurors as white jurors in felony trials. Defense attorneys, meanwhile, struck twice as many white jurors as black jurors. Wright’s research also shows the race and gender of jurors tend to predict whether a defendant will be found guilty.
Wright noted that the state and the defense will likely switch roles in Rosfeld’s case, given that it’s a white officer who’s on trial.
“My guess is that the prosecutor would welcome African-American jurors … and that the defense would be the reverse,” he said.
Attorneys can excuse up to seven potential jurors during voir dire without saying why, as long as it cannot be shown that factors like race or gender were the basis for doing so. But, Wright said there are ways around that law.
“Everybody’s got their own tricks of the trade,” he said. “This is sort of an area where trial attorneys pride themselves on coming up with questions.”
That’s exactly the kind of thing that local activist Jasiri X, who is black, worries about. While he said he takes some comfort in the fact that Rosfeld’s jury will come from a place with similar demographics as Allegheny County, he’s reserving judgment on whether the trial will be fair.
“If I see a jury and I see nobody that looks like me, I already know what it is. And it’s like, then the die is cast … Then you want to turn around and say, ‘Well, why are you all mad? Or, why are you all upset?'”
For such activists, the Rosfeld case will be a test of the entire justice system. And that trial begins with the selection of jurors Tuesday.