Probably few Pittsburghers expected District Attorney Stephen Zappala to prosecute the three police officers accused of beating Homewood teen Jordan Miles in 2010. Yet there was at least one surprise in last week's announcement that he wouldn't press charges: Zappala took the unusual step of publicly releasing a key document that guided his decision.
And after reviewing that report, one police expert says it could almost have been assembled by a defense expert in a civil case.
The report is an 18-page assessment of the events that took place Jan. 12, 2010, when three undercover police confronted Miles while he was walking home along Tioga Street. Police say they feared Miles was carrying a gun in the high-crime area, and that they had to subdue him when he tried to flee; Miles says the men never identified themselves as police.
Produced by Cliff Jobe, a retired Pennsylvania State Police commander, the report finds that the force used by officers Michael Saldutte, David Sisak and Richard Ewing was "objectively reasonable." Miles suffered "minor injury and tissue swelling," Jobe found, and he puts the onus for those injuries squarely on Miles. "[A] reasonable citizen, or one not impaired by intoxicants or mind-altering circumstances [sic] would be respectful of a police inquiry into neighborhood safety," Jobe writes.
Police, Jobe adds, were naturally suspicious when they saw Miles outside a nearby home at 11 p.m. They saw a "low-hanging, bulging pocket" in Miles winter coat; when Miles' "hand move[d] immediately to the vicinity of the pocket in question ... Miles escalated the concern ... in the minds of the experienced City Police Officers."
Police claim they thought the bulge was caused by a gun — which they say turned out to be a bottle of Mountain Dew. But Miles denies having such a bottle, and none has ever been produced. Even so, Jobe reported that "Miles was subsequently searched and determined to have ... [a] Mt. Dew (21 ounce) bottle determined to be the large heavy object of concern in the right front coat pocket."
David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who specializes in police issues, says that while an outside expert can be useful to prosecutors, "This expert report would be a perfect report for the defendants in a civil case. Not one part of the officers' story seems to be questioned here."
The dispute over the bottle, for example, is "a crucial part of this case and the report doesn't even make note of it."
In fact, the city has already paid for a report to help defend itself from a federal lawsuit filed by the Miles family. As City Paper reported in January, that 14-page expert opinion is broadly sympathetic to police. But it does acknowledge the controversy surrounding the bottle, concluding police "made a mistake when they discarded [it]."
Harris also notes Jobe's reference to Miles' injuries as "minor."
"The entire city saw the pictures of Jordan Miles," says Harris, "and this report doesn't even mention that he had chunks of hair pulled out of his head."
Citing a confidentiality agreement, Jobe responded only briefly to a list of questions about his report. "As I do my research and review I look at the ‘totality of circumstances' which are derived from all materials, and evidence ... coupled with my own knowledge and experience."
In the report, Jobe writes that he was paid $150/hour to compile the document, "without regard to my opinion being favorable to the client" — in this case, Zappala.
Zappala spokesman Mike Manko told City Paper that the DA released the Jobe report "to help explain how he arrived at his decision." And while Jobe's report "was just one aspect of this review," it is the only document made public. Manko did not directly respond to questions about whether the DA had released records in other cases he declined to prosecute. He did, however, supply a list of recent cases in which Zappala prosecuted police for alleged misconduct, including the ongoing case of officer Adam Skweres, accused of coercing women into sex in exchange for helping them with legal issues.
Harris says that in a high-profile case, releasing the paper trail of a prosecutor's decision-making can be valuable. He points to the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, where prosecutors have released hundreds of pages of information in the death of 17-year-old Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. That material would be turned over to the defense in any case, but releasing it publicly before trial is rare.
Says Harris, "I think there's something to be said for the DA to just say, ‘Here's what we've got and we're putting it all out there.'"