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Questioning Inquest

Coroner no longer certain Hill killing was murder

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As Joyce Rogers sat for the third inquest in the death of her son, Bernard Rogers, at the hands of city Housing Authority police officers, she turned to her assembled family.

 

"When they make the recommendation ruling in favor of pressing charges," she said, "we will say, 'Thank you, Jesus.' We will not cheer. Give the glory to God. If we don't give it to the Lord, he will take this case and turn it right back around."

 

Why and how Bernard Rogers was killed has been heavily disputed among police, detectives and witnesses since the shooting on Nov. 15, 2002 in the Bedford Dwellings housing projects in the Hill District. During a previous inquest, Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht had recommended homicide charges be filed against Officer Tonyea Curry. But now he said new evidence called for a new conclusion.

 

"I do know for certain that a shot outside the apartment was fired while Rogers ran down the steps," Wecht said at the Sept. 1 inquest. "That shot, however, did not strike Rogers." Wecht said he could no longer decide whether or not charges should be recommended, because too many questions surrounded the case.

 

Still, this much is certain: Three housing authority police officers were allowed to enter an apartment presumed to contain someone they were pursuing. An officer, hearing someone, proceeded to a back room, from which Rogers exited. A struggle ensued between Rogers and one or two cops. Shots were fired -- one inside the apartment and one outside it. Rogers ran down the apartment steps, collapsed and died.

 

The fatal shot came during a brief struggle between Rogers and Curry on a loveseat, Wecht said at the inquest. Officer Douglas Butler, also present at the shooting, said in earlier testimony that the struggle resembled a "hug," but no blood, gunshot particles or residue was found on Curry's orange sweatshirt. Wecht now believes Rogers was shot in the heart at close range during the struggle, then jumped up and exited the apartment, running down a flight of stairs while another shot from an officer outside the apartment was fired at him.

 

Wecht called repeatedly for further investigation and examination in the case, particularly of housing authority procedures and policies. He questioned why in this case, as with other cases, the police felt compelled to shoot an unarmed man who was not even the target of any criminal investigation -- especially when Rogers was fleeing.

 

"He wasn't fleeing to Nicaragua or Guatemala, at least not on this day -- why would you shoot?" Wecht asked at the inquest. "If it were someone stealing a car, what are they going to do? Steal the car of the president tomorrow, if you don't catch him today?"

 

This third inquest also revealed a new toxicology report that said that Rogers had "acute marijuana intoxication" that caused him to react "violently" to the approaching officers. But Wecht labeled that conclusion "speculative" at best.

 

"I can't speak from experience," he said. "I guess I really am a square. I've never indulged. But my take on marijuana is different. I always thought that people take marijuana to be cool, be mellow."

 

The level of marijuana in Rogers' system is an estimate, since he lost a great deal of blood from the gunshots.

 

Harvey Adams, the NAACP's police affairs committee chairman and former head of the city's housing authority police department, points out that police officers' accounts of the incident have changed over the years. "I don't think the truth will ever come out," he says. "Let me change my story and I'll end up over at Western Penitentiary."

 

Wecht emphasized again that, no matter what he ruled, it is still up to District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. to file charges against police, something Zappala's done only twice since 1995, and not at all since 1998.

 

That left Rogers' father William crying before the coroner, "devastated," he said. The Rogers family has made it clear that they have little faith in Zappala. They indicated they would seek federal authorities for relief, and pray to God for justice.

 

Said William Rogers: "Now we're right back where we started."

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