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Officer takes plea in tunnel shooting

Friday, October 12, 2001

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ending six years of legal wrangling, a white former Pittsburgh Housing Authority police officer pleaded guilty yesterday to involuntary manslaughter in the 1995 fatal shooting of a black Hazelwood man in the Armstrong Tunnels.

John Charmo, 47, of Glassport, was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail with two years' probation by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David S. Cercone. The judge credited Charmo with the nine months he has already spent in the county jail, meaning he will be eligible for parole Dec. 22.

The drawn-out case brought complaints about racial profiling by police, allegations of mishandled evidence and criticism that county prosecutors consistently failed to win guilty verdicts against white police officers who killed unarmed black motorists in the line of duty.

Charmo was charged with homicide in the April 6, 1995, shooting death of Jerry Jackson, 44. Jackson died in a barrage of at least 51 bullets fired by Charmo and three other officers in the Armstrong Tunnels at the end of a five-mile high-speed chase.

Jackson fled from police, starting the chase, after a city police officer saw him driving the wrong way on a one-way street in a public housing community in the Hill District. Jackson was shot 14 times. Thirteen of the bullets were fired by Charmo.

A trial in February ended in deadlock when the jury couldn't agree whether the shooting was justified. Guilty verdicts must be unanimous and three of 12 jurors were in favor of acquittal.

The mistrial fit a pattern of other high-profile, racially and politically charged cases against local police. Three suburban police officers were acquitted or set free after mistrials in the October 1995 suffocation death of Jonny Gammage in Overbrook. A jury acquitted a Pittsburgh officer in the December 1998 shooting death of Deron S. Grimmitt Sr., Downtown.

Fears another jury would deadlock or find Charmo not guilty led District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to agree to the plea bargain.

"I was afraid we would have to try and try and try this, and there would be no closure," he said at a news conference after the plea hearing yesterday.

Had Charmo been found guilty of first-degree murder, he would have faced mandatory life in prison. A third-degree murder conviction would have carried a maximum of 20 to 40 years in prison.

Although Charmo's sentence for involuntary manslaughter was a fraction of that, Zappala said the plea would prevent Charmo from ever returning to police work.

Since Charmo could have been sentenced to more than two years in prison, federal law will prevent him from owning a firearm, Zappala said. That in turn will prevent him from again becoming a police officer -- a guarantee the district attorney said was a necessary part of the plea bargain.

"Anything short of him not being a police officer would not be acceptable to me," Zappala said.

Charmo has tried to stay in police ranks, Zappala said, recently applying for a job as a U.S. marshal on airline flights.

Zappala said Charmo's actions in the 1995 shooting were "negligent and unjustified" and he has "no place among the brave" ranks of police officers.

At trial, Charmo's attorney argued the officer's actions were justified because he believed his life and the lives of others were in danger if Jackson was not stopped.

Charmo claimed he fired after Jackson spun his vehicle around in the tunnel and drove at Charmo's oncoming cruiser.

A coroner's jury recommended in 1995 that Charmo not be charged. The case was reopened in July 1999 when the Jackson family discovered videotaped evidence that was not introduced at the inquest.

The tape showed wheel markings in the Armstrong Tunnels from Jackson's car that contradicted Charmo's claim that Jackson had spun his car around.

Zappala revived the case, convening a new inquest that resulted in a homicide charge against Charmo.

He also tapped an independent investigator to study why the evidence was not introduced to the first coroner's jury by then-Deputy District Attorney W. Christopher Conrad. At the time, Conrad was Zappala's rival for the Democratic nomination for district attorney.

The special investigator, lawyer Richard Sprague of Philadelphia, later issued a report faulting Conrad for withholding the evidence.

The videotape surfaced during a civil suit against the Housing Authority by Ina Jackson, Jerry Jackson's mother.

Mrs. Jackson had been pressing the district attorney's office to retry Charmo when she died in March.

Yesterday, Zappala expressed his sympathy for family members and said they were "calm and composed" throughout the plea bargain negotiations with Charmo and his attorneys.

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