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Police shooter found guilty

Judge sets sentence date for June 26

Thursday, April 24, 2003

By Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A jury yesterday found Cecil Brookins guilty of most of the charges he faced in connection with the shootings of two police officers last year during an hours-long standoff in Homewood.

Pittsburgh police Officer Thomas Huerbin stands outside the courtroom where Cecil Brookins yesterday was found guilty of shooting him and another officer during a standoff in Homewood last year. Huerbin's bulletproof vest saved him from two bullets. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for more than 13 hours over three days before it found Brookins guilty of a dozen of the 14 counts that remained against him. Nearly two dozen related counts had been dismissed or withdrawn by the prosecution.

Now that Brookins, 47, faces what essentially is a life sentence, at least one of his victims said he is relieved to put it all behind him.

Thomas Huerbin, after nearly 10 years as a Pittsburgh police officer, said he will continue his career as a cop.

"I think this was behind me the day after it happened," Huerbin said after the verdicts were read. "I think the jury spoke better than I could. Just relief," is what he said he feels now.

On the day of the shootings, Feb. 20, 2002, Brookins was about to surrender to police Cmdr. Dom Costa when, police said, he brandished a .38-caliber revolver and began firing at Costa and the other five officers who had entered the third-floor living room to arrest him.

One of Brookins' bullets struck Costa in the shoulder and became lodged at the base of his brain where it remains. Costa has not returned to work.

Costa said in a telephone interview last night that he feels vindicated by the trial and the verdict.

Costa had testified during the trial that he felt another bullet whiz past his head as he dove for cover.

Huerbin, fortunately, was wearing a bulletproof vest at the time two more slugs struck him in the chest.

Bridget Huerbin, the officer's wife, spent most of the trial at her husband's side, stress and concern etched on her face.

Yesterday, she was grinning while watching her husband being interviewed.

"I'm just glad it's over," she said, still concerned about her husband's dangerous line of work.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., in a written statement, said the department is pleased with the verdicts.

"We know how difficult and fluid tactical incidents are, and we recognize that our officers did everything within their ability to resolve this incident as peacefully as possible," McNeilly wrote.

Assistant District Attorney Bruce Beemer, in his closing arguments to the jury Monday, noted that police officers risk their lives daily to keep the peace. He pitted their testimony against that of Brookins, a man with a criminal record dating to 1975.

Brookins and his attorneys, Ernest Sharif and Charles Porter, had argued that they believed the police officers had shot their own in their zeal to get at Brookins. The defense had claimed that Brookins never possessed the revolver, one of seven firearms found in that house that day, and never fired a weapon.

No fingerprints were found on the revolver and no gunpowder residue was found on Brookins' hands hours after the shootings.

Porter and Sharif said suggested that the revolver was planted by police because the weapon had been reported stolen from a Clairton man more than a month after the shootings.

"All of the evidence presented shows that if it was stolen, it was possessed by the defendant on that day," Beemer said after the verdicts.

The verdicts, Sharif said, did not change his position.

Costa said there is "no doubt in my mind," that Brookins, and not a fellow officer, shot him.

Inside the house, Brookins found himself nearly surrounded by policemen, most of them members of the Special Weapons and Tactics team that had been called to the scene..

While Brookins had been on the roof of the house on Hermitage Street, he had brandished a 9 mm pistol that he said he found on the windowsill. He said he had been at the residence preparing to do some remodeling for the owner when police arrived with an arrest warrant.

The officers said that when Brookins got inside the home, he suddenly pulled out the revolver and began firing.

Officer Patrick Knepp, one of the SWAT team members, said that he shoved Huerbin even as his colleague was being hit by bullets, and shot Brookins five times.

Brookins claimed that Knepp was not the only officer to shoot him. During the trial, he removed his shirt to show the jury most of the 14 wounds he suffered on various parts of his body.

The jury found Brookins guilty of trying to kill Costa, Huerbin and Knepp. He is guilty also of aggravated assault against the three.

He also was found guilty of recklessly endangering Knepp and three other officers, and for being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and for possessing an instrument of crime.

He faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison for each of the attempted homicide and aggravated assault convictions in addition to the potential for more time for the other six convictions.

Common Pleas Judge Donna Jo McDaniel set sentencing for June 26.

As he was led from the courtroom, Brookins complained that he was not permitted to show the jury evidence suggesting that he was surrounded by officers who shot him from all sides.

"It was what I expected it to be, due to racism and politics," said James Brown, Brookins' nephew who watched each day of the trial. "They knew there'd be lawsuits [without a conviction]."

Porter said that Brookins almost certainly will appeal the verdicts based on a lack of evidence.

Jim McKinnon can be reached at jmckinnon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1939.

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