The murder trial for former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall, the first city cop to be charged in an on-duty fatal shooting in nearly 20 years, is now on hold — indefinitely.
Prosecutors say David Jones, who is black, had an illegal gun tucked in his waistband when Pownall, who is white, pulled him over while Jones was riding a dirt bike. But they say Jones had already dropped the gun and was running away when Pownall shot him.
The trial was scheduled to start Monday, but is being delayed because of an unusual legal challenge from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office concerning the state’s use-of-force law, which sits at the heart of the high-profile case.
In late November, prosecutors asked Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott to tweak the instructions to jurors about when officers can use deadly force. The relevant section of law permits police officers to use deadly force when a suspect “has 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.”
Prosecutors argue that language is unconstitutional because it’s too broad, covering officers even when they don’t believe deadly force was necessary to protect themselves.
In an order last week, McDermott disagreed and wrote that she didn’t have the authority to “rewrite portions of a criminal statute” because it would “supercede the will of the people as placed into the hands of the legislature.”
Pownall’s trial was postponed because the District Attorney’s Office is appealing McDermott’s ruling to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, saying it would “substantially handicap” it’s case against Pownall.
After a brief hearing on Monday, Pownall’s lawyer, Fortunato Perri Jr., told reporters the DA’s appeal helps prove his defense — that his client justifiably shot Jones as he fled from a traffic stop in North Philadelphia.
“Clearly the existing law justifies his conduct. The District Attorney’s Office decided to ignore the existing law in bringing this prosecution,” said Perri.
A spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on what prosecutors will do if they lose the appeal.
Former Police Commissioner Richard Ross fired Pownall for using “poor judgement” while violating multiple departmental policies.
During Monday’s brief hearing, McDermott released Pownall from house arrest.
A status hearing is scheduled for Feb. 10, but McDermott did not set a new trial date.
“[Postponing the trial] is inconvenient for people like me and the family who would like closure,” said Tiffanie Luke, Jones’ girlfriend of several years, who flew across the country for the trial. “But I trust the District Attorney’s Office and what they’re doing.”
“We just want justice for DJ,” Luke said. “If I have to fly back 50 times, I will.”