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DA Rules Police OK in Shooting 12 yr. Old; Group to Protest F15
by miranda c. Sunday, Feb. 02, 2003 at 3:22 PM

On December 24, 2002, Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Samuel Nassan shot and killed Michael Ellerbe, an un-armed 12 year old African-American boy, in Uniontown, Fayette County. The boy was shot in the back after running from the officers. Nassan and his partner, Juan Curry, were chasing the boy because they believed he had stolen an SUV. That is where fact ends and speculation begins. What followed was a series of proceedings that highlighted the two troopers’ accounts of the killing that at least one person called a “kangaroo court.”

On December 24, 2002, Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Samuel Nassan shot and killed Michael Ellerbe, an un-armed 12 year old African-American boy, in Uniontown, Fayette County. The boy was shot in the back after running from the officers. Nassan and his partner, Juan Curry, were chasing the boy because they believed he had stolen an SUV.

That is where fact ends and speculation begins. What followed was a series of proceedings that highlighted the two troopers’ accounts of the killing that at least one person called a “kangaroo court.” After an investigation into the shooting, conducted solely by Nassan’s and Curry’s fellow State Police Officers, Fayette County Coroner Dr. Phillip E. Reilly convened a six member Coroner’s Jury. Coroners sometimes call together a Coroner’s Jury to decide whether or not someone is at fault in a death, especially when the case is high profile. In this case, unlike many Coroner’s Juries, Reilly did not question many of the witnesses himself. In fact, there was not much questioning at all. During the inquest, State Police Officers were the “mediators” who called witnesses to testify, and were also charged with the “questioning.” Often times, however, the witnesses, who were predominantly State Police Officers, were allowed to speak extemporaneously without direct questioning, and the inquest mediators allowed the jury to hear hearsay and circumstantial evidence. State Police Troopers were also allowed to “testify” for other witnesses who could have been called (but were not), by reading statements made by those witnesses and transcribed by State Police Officers.

During the inquest Trooper Nassan claimed that he shot Ellerbe after hearing another gunshot which he assumed was fired by Ellerbe, and which he claims he thought hit his partner, Curry. (In reality, Curry’s weapon discharged accidentally as he was jumping over a fence, and Curry was not hit.) Without confirming his suspicion, Nassan drew his weapon and shot Michael Ellerbe in the back, through his heart.

Joel Sansone, attorney for Michael Ellerbe’s family, became irate during the proceedings, calling the whole inquest a “joke” and charged Reilly with being complicit in a State Police cover-up. In protest, Sansone refused to give closing arguments in the case.

After deliberating for only 55 minutes, the all-white jury concluded that State Police Officer Nassan acted with an acceptable amount of force. Their verdict, though not legally binding, was then passed on to the Fayette County District Attorney, Nancy Vernon. Vernon had to then decide, in a separate proceeding, whether or not criminal charges needed to be levied against Nassan or Curry. Vernon was present in the courtroom during the Coroner’s Jury.

On Friday, Vernon announced her decision not to hold Trooper Nassan accountable for shooting Michael Ellerbe in the back. Vernon cited the State Police statute on “use of force,” claiming that Nassan’s actions were justified based on the situation.

Sansone was angered by the proceedings, but was not surprised by the decision. He said his clients basically feel that it “is no big surprise because poor people get screwed all the time, and this is just another time.”

Ellerbe’s family has, in addition to retaining Sansone, hired the services of renowned civil rights attorney Geoffrey Fieger, and is considering a civil suit against the State Police, charging racial discrimination. The FBI is also investigating this case, but Curry’s attorney, William Manifesto said he expects the same outcome in the federal investigation.

People Against Police Violence, a Pittsburgh-based group organizing around three recent killings of African Americans at the hands of police in the Pittsburgh area, are planning a march through downtown Uniontown on February 15 at 1:00 p.m. in order to keep attention focused on the boy’s death.

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Michael's Cousin Melissa Monday, Feb. 10, 2003 at 1:55 AM
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