Defense Asks Judge to Dismiss Case in Pa. Police Raid Lawsuit
By Elliot Grossman, The Morning Call (Allentown, Penn.)
As the defense began Tuesday in the John Hirko Jr. trial, a Bethlehem lawyer urged a judge to dismiss most of the lawsuit, repeatedly declaring that police officers acted reasonably during a deadly 1997 raid.
After the jury had left for the day, lawyer Susan Engle, representing Bethlehem and 14 former and current city officers, argued that the officers performed their roles as assigned to them.
"None of these defendants testified that they did anything but their jobs as police officers," she said.
Such motions are standard by defense lawyers after the other side has finished calling its witnesses. But Engle went into more detail than most lawyers, spending nearly two hours at the podium.
Before ruling, U.S. District Judge James Knoll Gardner of Allentown will listen to a response this morning from lawyer John Karoly Jr., representing Hirko, his fiancee and his landlord.
Karoly finished calling witnesses Monday; he presented 31 since the civil rights and wrongful death trial began Sept. 25. The defense team called two witnesses Tuesday before Gardner dismissed the jury until this afternoon.
At least initially, the defense appears to be calling witnesses in the order in which they became involved in the matter in the weeks leading up to the raid.
The first witness was Sean Tallarico, chief of the Moravian College police force. He testified that a few weeks before the raid he referred a student to city police — to use as a confidential informant — after a campus officer allegedly found the student with a small amount of marijuana.
At the direction of city police, student John Neison IV then allegedly bought drugs from Hirko four times before the raid. According to city police, Neison's actions gave them enough evidence for a warrant to search Hirko's house.
Police were trying to enter Hirko's house when the deadly encounter occurred. According to the city's version, Hirko shot at police, prompting them to return fire. But according to Karoly's version, Hirko was unarmed.
The second defense witness was Anthony Leardi Jr., the Bethlehem officer who directed Neison to make the drug buys. Leardi had testified only about his credentials before Gardner interrupted his testimony until today.
The defense team indicated it might call two dozen witnesses, including the defendants, during the next month. Other defense witnesses could include the state troopers who investigated the shooting.
In 1997, the troopers' investigation led to state Attorney General Mike Fisher clearing the officers of any criminal wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Engle argued that the testimony presented by Karoly does not support his claims.
For example, she said, there was no evidence to prove that police conspired to cover up their alleged wrongdoing after the raid when they gathered at the police station. Karoly has argued that police supervisors put the officers in one room so they could fabricate their official statements.
"No one was comparing notes," Engle said. "No was getting stories straight. They were sitting there pretty much stunned."
To support that statement, she pointed out that the officers have given varying versions of what happened on the raid.
She also asked that each officer be given "qualified immunity," a legal status given to public officials in specified circumstances, shielding them from lawsuits. An official who is "plainly incompetent" or who knowingly violates the law cannot be given qualified immunity. In the Hirko case, Engle said, the officers' actions should be considered reasonable when judged according to the information they knew when the raid began. That information included that Hirko had guns and drugs in the house, she said.
One by one, Engle reviewed the amount of force, if any, each officer used during the raid. She concluded that 10 officers used no force because they did not fire a gun or toss a flash-bang device. Some did not even enter the house, she noted.
Four others used force in a reasonable way, she said. For example, Engle said, officer Joseph Riedy shot at Hirko only after Hirko fired.
In addition, she asked Gardner to dismiss a claim that the police force had a custom or policy of using excessive force. She noted that Gardner did not allow Karoly to present evidence to the jury of three prior civil rights lawsuits. Karoly had wanted to use those cases to show that Bethlehem police had a history of using excessive force.