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Is verdict in Chester County police shooting a ‘sea change’ for officers on trial?

WEST CHESTER — What, if anything, does the verdict in the case of a Chester County police officer who fired a shot into a Black motorist’s car as she sped away after being stopped for a traffic violation say about the current local attitude towards police accused of misconduct while on duty?
To an attorney involved in the case, the verdict is fairly consistent with how those in the community have viewed such cases, but the attitudes expressed by those in the jury pool were indicative of a sea change.
“It has been pretty consistent,” said veteran defense attorney Vince DiFabio of the Tredyffrin law firm of Platt, DiGiorgio and DiFabio, who represented former West Caln Sgt. Anthony Sparano at trial in Common Pleas Court this month and has long been looked to by local police accused of crimes for representation. Jurors here have long felt comfortable with finding police officers guilty when they do something wrong in the course of their employment, he said.
Courtesy of Chester County DetectivesFormer West Caln Township Police Sgt. Anthony Sparano, guilty of shooting case. (Courtesy of Chester County Detectives)
He recounted, however, the responses potential jurors gave when asked if they had experienced an encounter with police that left them with a negative view of law enforcement.
“There were a fair number of people who raised their hands,” he said.
In further questioning in chambers, “some said they could be fair and some said they could not be fair,” DiFabio said in a recent interview. “It didn’t surprise me, given the media attention to what has happened over the past three or four years” involving police incidents that turned deadly.
Benefit of the doubt gone
“It is now less likely that a jury is going to give an officer the benefit of the doubt, even though they will still judge the case on the facts as they are,” DiFabio said.
Another attorney — a former county prosecutor who tried the 2018 case of a southern Chester County state trooper who punched a drunken-driving suspect in the face while the man was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car — agreed that the Sparano guilty verdict exemplifies the changing attitude towards police misconduct in the past few years.
“I think that jurors understand now that the police officer is not the jury and not the judge” in such cases, said attorney Cynthia Morgan, who won the conviction for assault in the case of the state trooper only after an initial jury acquitted him on official oppression charges  “They are starting to see that there are alternative methods to using deadly force.”
And lastly, there is Sparano himself, who views the episode that saw him draw his weapon and fire it at the fleeing car, smashing a rear window, and his subsequent prosecution for it as indicative of the changing environment for police across the county and country — for the worse.
“It seems like everything is a confrontation now,” Sparano said in an interview on Monday. “It seems there is a section of society that wants to exacerbate the situation, that wants confrontation. That is hard for law enforcement. And it just seems to me that it is more dangerous to be a law enforcement officer now. There is a lack of respect.”
Sparano case
On Feb. 2, Sparano was found guilty of recklessly endangering another person and propulsion of missiles into an occupied vehicle after a weeklong trial before Judge Alison Bell Royer. He is awaiting sentencing and has resigned from his position after being kept on the payroll in the months since his arrest in 2021.
Evidence presented at trial showed that Sparano, a 25-year veteran police officer in the county, shot at the motorist as she drove away from a traffic stop, striking the vehicle from behind. The driver, Takeshia Landry, was not struck by the gunfire.
Sparano pulled over Landry, who was living in Ohio at the time and was traveling to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2021, for running a red light at the intersection of Route 10 and Compass Road. When she hesitated in giving him her license and registration, the encounter escalated into a shouting match. As Sparano tried to open her car door, she sped away, and he drew his service handgun and fired a single shot at the rear of the car. The bullet pierced the driver’s side rear window.
Landry was taken into custody after a brief chase south on Route 10. The entire incident was captured on Sparano’s body camera, his dash camera and a camera that Landry had with her at the time. She has used it to document other police encounters. She later pleaded guilty to weapons charges for an illegal gun found in her car.
In its verdict, the jury found Sparano not guilty on a single count of simple assault.
In comments about the case afterward, DiFabio said that in jury selection, he was very cognizant that the mood nationally towards some police encounters had changed and that he had to ferret out whether the prospective panelists harbored some resentment towards police. It took more than a day to select the panel of 10 men and two women.
Surprising reactions
The most startling reaction, he said, came when the prospective jurors were asked whether they had supported, belonged to, or given money to organizations such as Black Lives Matter or groups that advocated for “defunding the police.”
“It was eye-opening,” he said. “There were people who helped support those organizations. And they could in no way be fair. They felt police officers in general mistreated people.
“Getting a fair jury with those responses made it much more difficult,” he said. “There is no way these people could be fair. They had preconceived notions (about police conduct), and those notions were almost shocking.
“It is very difficult in those circumstances for an officer to get a fair shake,” DiFabio said.
District Attorney Chris de Barrena-Sarobe declined to comment on what the verdict in Sparano’s case had to say about local attitudes towards police accused of crimes. He also would not discuss what sentence his office would ask Royer to impose.
“Our office will go through our normal process of reviewing the pre-sentence report, the sentencing guidelines, consulting with the victim, the trial testimony, and any other pertinent information before making a sentencing recommendation,” he said in an e-mail. “It would be premature for me to discuss what that recommendation might be at this time.”
In an interview this month, Morgan — who now works in private practice and handles civil rights litigation for the Wilmington, Del., law firm of Grant & Eisenhofer — agreed that it is “still exceedingly difficult now” to get jurors to put aside their traditional feelings of sympathy with police officers who might be in harm’s way in such instances.
To find them guilty, “the jury has to drop their prior ideas that the officers are there to preserve the security of the community,” she said.
Evaluating evidence
But she also said that as technology and times have changed, juries are more willing to look at the evidence and not just their prejudices. As in the Sparano case, there now exists body camera footage and individual recording of the interactions.
In the past, “you believed what the officers said was true because they were police officers,” Morgan said. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. When juries can really see their conduct, it really doesn’t matter what the officers testify to. Instead, they’ve got objective evidence.
“They see that officers don’t always make the right choice in the moment,” she said.
As for her view of police in the county, Morgan said: “I think that there are a lot of really good police officers in the county. I came to know many exceptional men and women in uniform. But there are systemic issues with training” of those officers that need to be addressed.  “We need to be training these officers on how to use deadly force and how to make those decisions in that moment.”
In the interview with a reporter that was held at his request, Sparano wanted to talk about the difference in attitudes towards law enforcement that he sees in the community today, and how people are more confrontational with police officers now than in the past. He also wanted to talk about what he felt was unfair and “unethical” treatment by the district attorney’s office.
To wit:
First, he noted that Landry was initially charged with reckless endangerment, which would have supported his contention that he was in jeopardy at the time of the stop and his use of deadly force was justified, but that those charges were dropped without him being notified or consulted or given a chance to testify about her conduct.
Second, that legal discovery in his case in the form of a report from his colleague at the West Caln department was not turned over quickly enough to digest before trial, and that that report would have supported his claims.
Third, Deputy District Attorney Bridget C. Gallagher insinuated in her closing that he had been untruthful in his testimony about what had occurred, and that characterization was harmful to his reputation.
“My career is over,” he said. “I am done as a law enforcement official. But I have concerns for law enforcement now. I don’t agree with the way we’re portrayed. I wish the jury could have heard more information. The job is difficult, extremely difficult. More now than at any time in my career.
Of the shooting, he said he acted out of concern for his safety. “You have to make a split-second decision based on your training. It is easy for others to second guess that. Now as a police officer, how do you trust certain members of the DA’s office? If they have your back (Landry) should have been charged with more than what she was charged with.
“How are you supposed to function if you don’t have the backing or the support (of the prosecutor’s office?) But I have to respect the jury’s decision. It is always going to come down to what the jury believes.
District Attorney Christopher de Barrena-Sarobe delivers remarks during his swearing-in ceremony in January 2024. (Photo provided by Chester County District Attorney’s Office)
De Barrena-Sarobe responded by saying that Sparano’s trial had been fair.
“In all criminal cases, a defendant has the right to raise legal issues before a judge and to have a jury decide factual disputes,” he said in an e-mail last week. “In this case, Defendant Sparano exercised his rights and was convicted of crimes in a court of law.
“But Defendant Sparano’s case has not concluded because he still needs to be sentenced,” de Barrena-Sarobe said. “Therefore, I will not comment further other than to reiterate my thanks to the jury for their work on this case and to reaffirm that the Chester County District Attorney’s Office will continue to apply the law evenly when investigating and prosecuting citizens that commit crimes, even police officers.”
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.
Source: Morningcall

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