Friday, September 21, 2001

Expert defends Roach's decision

Belief Thomas was armed is called justified

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        An expert with knowledge about low-level lighting and its effects on police shootings testified Thursday that Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach's belief that Timothy Thomas had a gun is plausible.

[photo] Officer Stephen Roach (left) is surrounded by friends and family Thursday afternoon, as Angela Leisure, mother of Timothy Thomas, sits alone (right) during a recess in Officer Roach's trial.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        “It was his reality at that moment,” said Paul Michel, an optometrist and psychologist who has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI on night shootings involving officers.

        Dr. Michel was one of three expert defense witness to testify Thursday, after Hamilton County Municipal Judge Ralph E. “Ted” Winkler denied a defense motion to dismiss the case.

        The motion, by defense attorney Merlyn Shiverdecker, contended prosecutors failed to prove their case against the officer.

Complete coverage in our special section.
        The prosecution rested its case after three days of testimony. The defense could wrap up its side today officials said.

        Officer Roach, 27, a four-year member of the force, is on trial on misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide and obstructing official business in the April 7 shooting death of Mr. Thomas, 19.

        Prosecutors have to prove that Officer Roach had a “substantial lapse of due care” when he shot Mr. Thomas, who was not armed. They also have to prove that the officer hindered or impeded the investigation into the shooting when he offered differing versions of what happened.

   The defense case in the trial of Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach could wind up today. Closing arguments could begin Monday.
   On Thursday the defense began with three expert witnesses who testified about Officer Roach's vision and psychological state.
   Today, the defense is expected to call a number of character witnesses, possibly:
   • 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.
   • More of his fellow police officers.
        The defense seeks to prove that Officer Roach's actions were reasonable and in line with his training, officials said. The defense also has to prove that Officer Roach's statements didn't interfere with or prevent investigators from doing their jobs.

What could he see?
        Dr. Michel said Thursday that he reviewed eye examinations of Officer Roach as well as interviews the officer gave to investigators, and videos and photographs of the scene.

        Fast movement and low light hinder vision, he said. The brain automatically compensates by drawing on a person's experience and training to create a picture that the person recognizes. High emotion can also affect vision, he added.

        Because of Mr. Thomas' actions — running from police in Over-the-Rhine and hand movements near his waistband — Officer Roach could not have distinguished his empty hand from a handgun in that alley, Dr. Michel said.

        A Cincinnati-based forensic optometrist, Dr. Robert Weathers, testified that Officer Roach's vision is adequate.

Eye weakness described
        However, the officer has a weak left eye. As a result, Officer Roach's brain processes images directly in front of him only from his right eye, he said.

        Also Thursday, Dr. William Lewinski, a police psychologist from Minnesota State University, testified that Officer Roach was “profoundly” affected by the incident.

        As a result, Officer Roach was susceptible to “coercive” statements from investigators, Dr. Lewinski said.

        Dr. Michel discounted photos of the scene taken by police, saying they don't accurately reflect how dark it was that night because the camera flashes created enough artificial light to make the 2 a.m. scene look “like noon.”

        He also said that Officer Roach told him Mr. Thomas did not raise his hands up to his shoulders and spread his fingers as one might expect. Rather, Officer Roach said, Mr. Thomas' right hand came up across his torso and his left hand followed supporting the right, much like the movement one would make if he or she were holding a gun.

        But under questioning from the prosecution, Dr. Michel acknowledged that his opinion — that the shooting was justified because Officer Roach believed he saw a weapon — was based on Officer Roach's account of how Mr. Thomas “probably” looked.

        If Officer Roach's information was not accurate it would affect his findings, he said.

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