08/20/2012

Jury finds pair not guilty of shooting, paralyzing Pa. officer

In wiretapped conversations, defendant indicated he shot Clairton officer James Kuzak, who is now paralyzed

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Clairton officer James Kuzak Jr. said the justice system both worked and failed after an Allegheny County jury on Thursday found two men not guilty of the shooting that left Kuzak paralyzed.

Marcus Andrejco, 19, of Rankin, and Emilio Rivera, 27, of McKees Rocks, were on trial for more than two dozen charges, including attempted homicide and other crimes, stemming from a home invasion the night of April 4, 2011 at 858 Miller Ave. in Clairton.

Kuzak, 40, of Rostraver Township, was one of three officers to respond to the scene that night. He was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot five times by a fleeing assailant.

Rivera was found guilty of burglary, four counts of robbery, four counts of recklessly endangering another person, three counts of aggravated assault and other charges related to the invasion. Rivera was found not guilty on all criminal charges regarding Kuzak’s shooting. Andrejco was acquitted on all counts.

“We’re hurt as a family with the verdict,” Kuzak said after spending time with family and friends outside Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski’s court room. “It’s just (going to) take us some time to heal, but when you hear that verdict, it really shakes you to the core. Your life basically rests in the hands of 12 people.

“I believe the justice system worked and I also think it failed.”

The jury of 10 women and two men reached their verdict after deliberating for about a day and a half. The panel received the case Tuesday evening. Formal deliberations began Wednesday morning.

The verdict was read Thursday at approximately 2:45 p.m.

Kuzak said his 18 years in law enforcement helped him show no emotion in the courtroom.

“I think a lot of it was understanding that I had taken a great deal of pride in doing this job for so long, and I had to respect the courtroom,” Kuzak said. “It did kind of hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Jurors declined to speak to the media after reaching their decision on what was day 18 of a trial that began July 24.

At least 10 sheriff’s deputies were on hand for the verdict to maintain order in Borkowski’s courtroom. The judge and one of the deputies warned attendees to keep their composure regardless of the outcome.

Kuzak’s family and friends wore blue and black wristbands in support of the injured patrolman. They all sat silently, fighting back tears after the verdict was read. The officer and his family and friends left in a visibly emotional state.

“I’m elated,” Andrejco’s attorney Ralph Karsh said. “My client was innocent of these charges, and I told the jury this is their job to determine whether it’s proven or not proven. I think that the jury had amazing courage to stand up in the face of this type of crime.

“Our heart goes out to officer Kuzak. He’s a hero and he should be recognized as such, but Marcus Andrejco didn’t do this, never did this. The jury had the courage to listen to the evidence and the lack of evidence and come back with the appropriate verdict.”

Rivera’s attorney Paul Gettleman said his client is very disappointed with the outcome.

“He was guilty but he wasn’t guilty,” Gettleman said. “Nobody really knows who shot the police officer, and that’s the saddest thing of all because that was the question we were all here to answer.”

Borkowski commended the jurors for their patience and dedication to the trial, which the judge said went on longer than predicted.

“This has been an extremely difficult situation for you individually and collectively,” Borkowski told the jury.

“That was the best jury in 40 years that I’ve ever had,” Gettleman said. “They were thoughtful. They went through each and every count of each and every charge. I believe that their verdict was what they believe was right, and I’m not going to question it.”

Gettleman later told the media that even though he respects the verdict, he finds it “a little puzzling” that his client was found guilty on charges related to the home invasion, and plans to appeal.

More than 30 witnesses testified during the trial, and at least 150 pieces of evidence were entered into the court record.

One of those witnesses was Andrejco’s mother, Jaime Andrejco, who testified her son was at their Hawkins Village home the night of the shooting watching “Dancing with the Stars” and playing music on a computer in the kitchen.

“Words can’t even explain how I feel,” Jaime Andrejco said outside the courtroom Thursday. “All I can say is I told you so. Marcus was with me. I knew he was with me. There was never a question in my mind. I’m glad that the truth prevailed and Marcus is coming home. I knew he was coming home because Marcus is an innocent man.”

Jamie Andrejco also offered condolences to Kuzak.

“I hope eventually justice will prevail for him as well,” she said.

Karsh noted that his client had been incarcerated for 15 months.

“He was a good kid. He may come out a good kid,” Karsh said.

A key witness in the case, a woman living with her fiancé and two children at the duplex in April 2011, identified four people since the incident as being the two invaders.

Two of the men were arrested and later released by county police.

During Andrejco and Rivera’s separate preliminary hearings in Glassport last year, the woman testified to them being the same man who allegedly assaulted her in an upstairs children’s room.

The woman testified on day one of their trial that Rivera was her assailant and Andrejco was Kuzak’s shooter.

Deputy district attorney Dan Fitzsimmons asked the jury during Tuesday’s closing arguments not to take the woman’s multiple identifications into account.

“Mr. Fitzsimmons was in a very bad position,” Karsh said. “I’ve been doing this 25 years … I’ve never heard a prosecutor, and I think he did the correct thing, tell the jury to ignore his eyewitness. But how do you ignore that eyewitness?

“She misidentified, now counting this verdict, at least four people. Nobody knows who did what in that house.”

During Wednesday’s deliberations, the jury heard recorded statements Andrejco and Rivera made to county detectives in which they both confessed to being involved in the invasion, but that another person planned the robbery and shot the officer with a revolver.

The jury also heard wiretapped conversations between Rivera and former confidential informant Sean Ball, during which Rivera indicated he shot the officer and was glad someone who looked like him got arrested. The jury also heard other recorded statements witnesses made to investigators.

Karsh and Gettleman argued that their clients’ confessions to detectives were coerced through hours of interrogation and intimidation.

“It’s clear to me that there was pressure put upon (Andrejco),” Karsh said. “He was told that if he would admit to this it would go easier for him. Unfortunately, an 18-year-old kid cracked after 12 hours in custody.”

Karsh said during his closing arguments that Kuzak should be “furious” with the shooting investigation, and detectives did “shoddy” and “sad” police work.

Kuzak, who has been involved in numerous and various types of cases throughout his career, disagreed.

“By no means am I furious,” Kuzak said Thursday. “You don’t always have what you need, so you work with what you got. They worked with what they’ve got, and that’s not always what you need.”

The injured officer said he has not had time to speak with county detectives about possibly reopening the investigation, but believes someone knows the truth.

“I absolutely applaud everyone that worked on this case. I owe my deepest gratitude to them,” Kuzak said. “One person knows who shot me, and that’s Emilio Rivera. Maybe we’ll find out here one day.”

Kuzak said he plans to return to his routine of physical therapy and other efforts to walk again now that the trial is over. He was in the courtroom for the majority of the trial after testifying, either by his girlfriend’s side, with his father or in the company of Clairton police officers.

“I’m sure we’re all going to take some time together,” Kuzak said. “We’ll all recover from it … I just want to thank everyone for their support. It means so much for me and the family.”

All of the charges on which Rivera was convicted are first-degree felonies. Borkowski set sentencing for Nov. 15.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.’s office released a statement regarding the verdict via spokesman Mike Manko.

“District Attorney Zappala respects the verdict of this jury and would like to thank these men and women for their hard work and attentiveness during this long trial,” Manko said in a press release. “The District Attorney also commends Officer Kuzak for the performance of his duties and for the courage and dignity that he has shown since sustaining his injuries.

“With the return of the verdict, Emilio Rivera faces a maximum sentence of 69 to 138 years in prison and it is the intention of the office to request maximum time during his upcoming sentencing hearing.”

Reprinted with permission from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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