Sunday, September 16, 2001

Public will soon hear story behind shooting

Trial is set to start Monday in confrontation that launched riots

By Marie McCain and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] A memorial stands at the site where Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach near 12th and Republic streets.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        His single shot in the early morning darkness of Over-the-Rhine ignited riots, led to millions of dollars in damage across Cincinnati and drew federal scrutiny to the city's police division.

        Now, almost six months later, Officer Stephen Roach's fatal confrontation with 19-year-old Timothy Thomas will finally come into focus.

        The four-year police veteran steps into a courtroom Monday morning to stand trial on misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide in the death of Mr. Thomas April 7, and obstructing official business for allegedly lying about it.

        The trial, which is expected to last at least a week, is the first of three in the next six weeks for Cincinnati police officers.

        “I think the thing that's going to have the most impact here is what actually happened,” Chief Tom Streicher said. “Everyone has an interest in finding out what occurred there.

        “But one thing's for sure — there's going to be a decision rendered and not everybody's going to be happy about it.”

        Mr. Thomas, of Over-the-Rhine, was shot in a dark alley at 13th and Republic streets after fleeing police. He was wanted on 14 misdemeanor warrants — 12 traffic violations and two warrants for evading police. He was not armed.

        If convicted on both charges, the maximum jail sentence Officer Roach could face: Nine months.

The bench trial

        Rather than being judged by a jury of his peers, Officer Roach has opted for a bench trial.

        His case will be heard by Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Ralph E. “Ted” Winkler, a former assistant county prosecutor who won election to the bench two years ago.

        Mr. Winkler is the son of former Republican state Rep. Cheryl Winkler and Judge Ralph Winkler of the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals.

        A former prosecutor, Judge Winkler said his rulings will be based strictly on facts of the case.

        “This will be a fair trial,” he says. “What is said in court — not hearsay and not in media reports — that's what I'll base my decision on.”

    Lawyers on both sides of the Stephen Roach case have filed lists of possible witnesses.
    Among people who could testify on behalf of Officer Roach:
    • Police psychology experts William J. Lewinsky, Ph.D., of Minnesota State University, and James Daum, Ph.D., of Mount Auburn, who often works with officers in the region;
    • Marvin Wilhelm of Oxford, former principal of Talawanda High School, where Officer Roach played football before graduating in 1992;
    • Paul Michel, a Littleton, Colo., optometrist expected to discuss vision in low-light situations;
    • Retired Cincinnati officers Mike Broering and Roger Smallwood, who now work as civilian trainers. They run the police division's Firearms Training System, a big-screen DVD program that tests officers in various shoot-or-don't-shoot scenarios. Mr. Smallwood also is listed as a possible prosecution witness.
    • Oxford Fire Chief Len Endress and Police Chief Steve Schwein. Officer Roach formerly worked for both departments as a dispatcher, firefighter and emergency medical technician. His father, Dennis, has been an Oxford police officer for 23 years;
    • Cincinnati officers Cindy Mordi, Jenny Brown and Herb Hood; Todd Bruner, who works at the training academy; and Capt. Vince Demasi, commander of the police division's criminal investigations unit; and Sgt. Brian Ibold and Lt. Robert Ruebusch, two of Officer Roach's former supervisors in District 1;
    • Officer Roach's wife, Erin Roach, who's also a police dispatcher;
    • Fraternal Order of Police attorney Steve Lazarus.
    Among possible prosecution witnesses:
    • Angela Leisure, Timothy Thomas' mother.
    • Homicide investigators Darrin Hoderlein, Robert Heinlein, James Engelhart, Robert Randolph, Gregory Ventre and Charlie Beavers. It was Officer Beavers, court papers say, to whom Officer Roach allegedly lied. They say he told two different stories about what happened that night;
    • Joshua Hudson, in technical services with the Ohio Organized Crime Investigation Commission. He is expected to discuss how the cruiser cam video of the shooting was enhanced;
    • Officers Robert Jones III, David Damico, Chris Schroder, Robert Kidd and Mike Brogan; Sgt. Rudy Gruenke and Capt. Paul Humphries. All responded to the scene that night. Officer Schroder stood behind Officer Roach when he fired;
    • Firearms examiner William Schrand, toxicologist Robert Powers and Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf, who performed the autopsy. All work for the Hamilton County coroner's office.
    • Linda Backscheider, dispatch supervisor.
    Timothy Dewayne Thomas, the African-American man killed April 7 near 13th and Republic streets in Over-the-Rhine, was 19 and a father of a son, Tywon, now 9 months old.
    Mr. Thomas was wanted on 14 misdemeanor charges, most of them traffic offenses, at the time he ran from Cincinnati officers early that morning.
    He was shot once by Officer Stephen Roach. The bullet cut through his aorta and punctured a lung. At the time, he was the 15th black man killed during altercations with Cincinnati police since 1995.
    Mr. Thomas moved from Chicago in 1997 with his mother, two brothers and three sisters. His family said he wanted a career in electronics after getting his high-school diploma from Nativity Learning Center in Price Hill.
    By law a person charged with a crime has the right to a trial before his peers. The defendant can choose to let a judge decide whether he's guilty.
    According to Christo Lassiter, a criminal law professor at the University of Cincinnati's College of Law, there are several reasons why a defendant might opt for a judge as opposed to a jury.
    “If you believe a jury of your peers will be ideologically opposed to you, you go with a judge,” he says.
    Because the trial of Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach is in Municipal Court, it would pull its jury pool from within the city only, rather than all of Hamilton County.
    Since the city is 43 percent black, and blacks tend to be “more open-minded to allegations of misconduct,” it might not be to his benefit to go for a jury of his peers, Mr. Lassiter says.
    “But that's a much more cynical reason for choosing a judge over a jury,” he adds.
    • April 7: Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach, who had been pursuing 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine, shoots and kills the African-American at 13th and Republic streets. Mr. Thomas was found to have been unarmed. He is the 15th African-American to die in confrontations with Cincinnati police since 1995.
    • April 9: A group of citizens takes over a Cincinnati City Council committee meeting, demanding to know why Mr. Thomas was shot. That night, protesters break City Hall's windows and gather outside police headquarters on Ezzard Charles Drive.
    • April 10: Civil unrest turns violent; rioters overturn planters and hot dog stands, break windows and pull several white motorists from their cars and assault them.
    • April 11: Random violence — arson, assault, looting, property destruction and shooting — occurs in communities from Over-the-Rhine to Norwood. A Cincinnati police officer is shot, but his belt buckle deflects the bullet and he is not injured. A Justice Department team arrives in the city to gather evidence on whether it should begin a civil rights investigation into the “patterns and practices” of Cincinnati's Police Division.
    • April 12: Mayor Charlie Luken declares a state of emergency and a citywide curfew begins at 8 p.m. It ends after four nights, with calm restored.
    • April 13: City Safety Director Kent Ryan resigns from his position supervising the police and fire divisions.
    • April 14: Mr. Thomas is buried.
    • May 2: City Manager John Shirey, criticized by some City Council members for his handling of the unrest and riots, agrees to resign effective Dec. 1.
    • May 3: A Hamilton County grand jury begins hearing evidence in Mr. Thomas' shooting.
    • May 7: Grand jury indicts Officer Roach on negligent homicide and obstructing official business charges, both misdemeanors. The U.S. Justice Department announces a formal investigation to determine whether Cincinnati police have a pattern of excessive force violating the civil rights of residents.
    • Monday: Officer Roach's trial before Municipal Court Judge Ralph Winkler is scheduled to begin.

        It remains to be seen what impact the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. will have on the emotions of Cincinnatians as this trial unfolds.

        The tragedy has overshadowed what was once the most high-profile case in town. Days after Mr. Thomas' death, public outrage turned violent. Bystanders were attacked. Stores were looted. Businesses destroyed. And a Justice Department team arrived to launch an investigation into the police department's “practices and patterns.”

        Mayor Charlie Luken imposed a citywide curfew that lasted four days. He then appointed community leaders to a special commission created to ease racial tensions in Cincinnati.

        Still cognizant of all these whirlwind events, Judge Winkler and other court officials have increased security for the trial.

        Officers will inspect each person who enters the courtroom and use hand-held metal detectors to sweep for possible weapons.

        Rather than his smaller, regular courtroom on the first floor, Judge Winkler will hold the proceedings in room 495 in a Common Pleas court. The room holds about 40 onlookers and seats will be saved for the immediate families of Officer Roach and Mr. Thomas.

        The proceedings will be broadcast by Court-TV.

The attorneys

        Neither Merlyn Shiverdecker, Officer Roach's attorney, nor Stephen McIntosh, the special prosecutor hired by the city, would discuss strategies for this trial.

        A former assistant county prosecutor who left 20 years ago for private practice, Mr. Shiverdecker is not known for courtroom dramatics. He is direct and well-respected by his peers.

        He is also defending another of Cincinnati's indicted police officers, Patrick Caton, who faces a misdemeanor assault charge in the Nov. 7 asphyxiation death of Roger Owensby Jr. A second officer, Robert Jorg, faces a felony involuntary manslaughter charge in Mr. Owensby's death while he was in police custody. Their trials begin next month.

        Mr. McIntosh is the chief city prosecutor in Columbus and was hired by Cincinnati shortly after Officer Roach's May 7 indictment. The city agreed to pay Columbus $15,000 for his time and expenses in this case. Anything beyond that, Columbus will bill Cincinnati, officials said.

        Mr. McIntosh has been a lawyer 17 years and became Columbus' chief prosecutor in 1996 and has prosecuted police before.

        “I'm hoping that we get enough facts and information out front so that the people of Cincinnati can know what occurred ... so that maybe they can move on and start dealing with the issues” surrounding the death of Mr. Thomas, Mr. McIntosh says.

The witnesses
        Some legal experts say this trial has some similarities to the Rodney King beating trial in Los Angeles nearly a decade ago. Four officers were tried and two convicted in the dramatic beating, which was caught on videotape.

        Central to both cases are the practices and policies of a police department — “what should a reasonable police officer have done in the heat of the moment,” says Christo Lassiter, a criminal law professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

        Both sides will likely ask Judge Winkler to look at the facts and determine if Officer Roach's actions were consistent with police protocol, he says.

        At least seven of Officer Roach's colleagues who helped chase Mr. Thomas that morning are on the prosecution's witness lists, as are six homicide investigators. One of them, according to court documents, may testify about conflicting stories Officer Roach allegedly gave about why he fired the shot.

        His bullet cut Mr. Thomas' aorta and punctured a lung, according to a coroner's report. Other coroner's experts will talk about results of toxicology tests and about the officer's 9mm service weapon.

        Mr. Thomas' mother, Angela Leisure, promises to be one of the most dramatic of the prosecution's witnesses. She and other family members have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.

        The list of possible defense witnesses is heavy on people who can testify about Officer Roach's character: Erin Roach, the dispatcher he married a year ago; his high school principal from Oxford; chiefs of the Oxford fire and police departments, for which he worked before he became a Cincinnati cop in 1997.

        “He's just a solid police officer who always gives 110 percent,” says Sgt. Brian Ibold, one of at least two of Officer Roach's former District 1 supervisors who has been called to testify.

        The defense may argue that poor lighting obscured Officer Roach's vision as he chased Mr. Thomas and fired. An optometrist from Littleton, Colo., is among possible defense witnesses. Mr. Shiverdecker also has subpoenaed Cinergy maintenance records on the street lights at the shooting scene.

The fallout
        A flower garden now grows at the corner of 13th and Republic streets several feet from where Mr. Thomas was shot to death.

        Officer Roach, Badge No. 313, who worked his entire four years in Over-the-Rhine, has been reassigned to the impound lot. He has not spoken publicly about the incident.

        Many community members, upset when Officer Roach was indicted on misdemeanors rather than more serious felonies, say a conviction is crucial to helping alleviate anti-police sentiment.

        “We still believe Roach was undercharged,” says Dwight Patton, a member of the Cincinnati Black United Front, a community group that is party to a federal racial profiling lawsuit against Cincinnati and its police.

        Mr. Patton says demonstrations will be held outside the courthouse as the trial goes on inside.

        “We don't need to be distracted by national or international occurrences. We need to focus on what's going on right here,” says Mr. Patton. “We want justice. It's the only remedy to the riots. Certainly, (Officer Roach) should be convicted.”

        Cincinnati police officers are concerned about the permanent ramifications on their jobs if Mr. Roach is convicted for what they consider a necessary split-second decision.

        Keith Fangman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, predicted the trials will have long-term effects on Cincinnati's 1,020 officers.

        He says he sees the Roach trial, as well as the coming trials for officers Jorg and Caton, and the Justice Department investigation as “defining moments for this police division.”

       Enquirer reporter Greg Korte contributed.

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