By Joe Mandak
PITTSBURGH — The mother of a Pittsburgh man fatally shot by a state trooper with a history of confrontations called him an out-of-control killer as she held a news conference Tuesday detailing a federal lawsuit filed against him.
Trooper Samuel J. Hassan fatally shot Nicholas Haniotakis, 32, on March 15 during a drunken driving patrol. Hassan is the same trooper whose fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy in 2002 led to a record $12.5 state settlement.
"Nobody is safe if we have someone like this on the streets," said Diane Zion, flanked by her lawyer, prominent attorney Geoffrey Fieger. "This man, to me, is a murderer, and he has to be stopped, he has to be stopped."
Fieger contends that the state police wrongly kept Hassan on the job despite "extremely violent behavior" that he says included confrontations with law enforcers, citizens, and even a superior when he was in the military.
Police say Nassan and city police Sgt. Terrence Donnelly shot Haniotakis four times when he failed to stop after the officers saw him driving without headlights.
Police claim the officers fired only after Haniotakis tried to run them over. A medical examiner determined Nassan killed Haniotakis with a shot to the back; other bullets hit him in the extremities.
Nassan, a seven-year member of the state police, remains on desk duty during an investigation. Pittsburgh police aren't commenting on the lawsuit.
Fieger said state police brass saw to it that Nassan's personnel file was "culled of negative instances" and that a lieutenant in December forced Nassan's supervisor to give him a satisfactory performance review.
Fieger said he knows about Nassan's record because of his work on the lawsuit that settled for $12.5 million last year. In that case, a federal court jury found Nassan and his partner shot 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe in the back. Fieger also said he had state police informants.
In the new lawsuit, Fieger contends that Nassan left the military "without an honorable discharge" and that he inflicted head injuries on a high-ranking officer.
Online records show that Hassan was a Marine sharpshooter who enlisted in 1993. His discharge records were not available.
Quinn and Nassan's union attorney, Eric Stoltenberg, aren't commenting directly about the shooting or Nassan's background.
"Whatever may have happened in the past with regard to a trooper or a city of Pittsburgh police officer or anybody else, really, should not be a factor in determining whether, in a split second, a police officer acted appropriately," Stoltenberg said.
But Fieger - who once represented suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian and ran for governor of Michigan - contends Nassan should have been fired for one incident alone: the Ellerbe shooting on Christmas Eve 2002.
Fieger represented Ellerbe's father when a federal court jury in Pittsburgh last year delivered a $28 million civil rights verdict.
Police said that Ellerbe was driving a stolen SUV and that Nassan and another trooper chased the boy after it crashed. Nassan testified he shot the unarmed boy in the back because his partner's gun snagged on a fence and fired, leading Nassan to believe Ellerbe had shot his partner.
A jury rejected Nassan's version, ruling that both troopers purposely shot Ellerbe and that the state police covered it up. The police appealed before settling for $12.5 million in November - by far the most the state police have ever paid in a wrongful shooting case.
Before that, the largest settlement in a state police shooting case was $275,000 in 2005 - in another case linked indirectly to Nassan.
That shooting involved Trooper Francis J. Murphy III, who Fieger claimed is Nassan's friend and helped him hide his military problems as Nassan was applying to the state police.
Murphy shot a suicidal man wielding a shotgun during a January 1994 blizzard as the man trudged in knee-deep snow. Murphy testified he shot him in the back from 80 yards away because he was advancing on other troopers.
A federal jury cleared Murphy of wrongdoing, but a judge awarded the suicidal man's mother a new trial after learning attorneys didn't disclose Murphy's personnel file. The case settled before the second trial.
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Murphy declined to comment on the Nassan lawsuit Thursday.