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Charmo case shows a change in climate

Friday, February 09, 2001

I feel sorry for John Charmo. His homicide trial is winding down and Jerry Jackson's ghost refuses to stay in the Armstrong Tunnels, where 14 of 51 bullets laid him to rest nearly six years ago. Thirteen of the 14 shots that killed Jerry Jackson came from the former Housing Authority police officer's .40-caliber pistol.

Jerry Jackson met his match that night. After leading police on a dangerous eight-minute high-speed chase, no amount of weaving was going to make a difference as he squirmed to free himself from his car seat, surrounded by broken glass and blood. The best he could hope for as a fusillade of Black Talon bullets rained down on him was that community outrage would force the officers responsible to detail in open court the callousness with which he was killed.

Predictably, there was community outrage, but it wasn't enough to spur an investigation with teeth. In those pre-Jonny Gammage days, outrage dissipated in the wind of public indifference. There was very little sympathy for accused criminals in their encounters with the police, regardless of their guilt or innocence.

The district attorney's office uncritically accepted Charmo's version of events: Jackson spun his stolen car in the tunnel and was fired upon as he tried to ram Charmo's car. Jackson's car then spun like a top again before trying to speed off in the opposite direction.

What's remarkable about this narrative is the skill with which a scared and wounded car thief allegedly maintained control of a battered vehicle rolling along on three wheels. Spinning the car in a tunnel too small for such a maneuver actually pales in comparison when you think about it.

Initially, there was very little skepticism about Charmo's version of events. He was cleared after a coroner's inquest. The case was eventually reopened when cognitive dissonance became too much.

A civil suit filed by Jackson's family stirred things up considerably. A damaging videotape of the crime scene that undermined Charmo's testimony suddenly surfaced. Previous evidence was re-examined. A former DA's waffling didn't help. The weakening of police resolve to protect Charmo advanced the Jackson family's cause in the court of public opinion.

Most of all, years had passed. Pittsburgh found itself under the weight of a federal consent decree because of the conduct of a few officers. Public outrage at abuses that consistently went unpunished gave birth to the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board. The Vojtas/Cooperstein trials made unbelievers of many who'd formerly believed that justice, though tardy, would always win out.

Earlier this week when graphic evidence was unveiled for the jury's consideration, Charmo asked to be excused and returned to his cell. There he sat in lieu of a $500,000 bond, reportedly sick to his stomach. The day before, several officers testified against him, shredding the legendary thin blue line. They told a different tale of what happened in the tunnel.

No wonder Charmo is feeling sick these days. I'd feel nauseated too if I were an ex-cop on trial for murder in today's more enlightened climate.

I feel sorry for Charmo because the world has changed. There's a consensus building in Pittsburgh that criminals can't be summarily executed in the street anymore just because they've driven very fast in public.

The cops themselves are tired of miscreants in their ranks pulling the reputation of whole departments down with them. They're breaking from formation and telling the truth about the bad apples they once tolerated, restoring public confidence and community goodwill in the process.

Unfortunate as this is for John Charmo, I feel even sorrier for the family of Jerry Jackson. He may have been a criminal, but criminals can be reformed and deserve the benefit of the doubt, even with cops in hot pursuit.

It may sound callous, but I think it's better that John Charmo spend the remainder of his trial sick to his stomach than for Pittsburgh's legal system to remain sick from the injustice that kept the case from getting as far as it needed to come.

It isn't a forgone conclusion that John Charmo will be convicted, but people who've prayed and worked for justice are cautiously optimistic. Pittsburgh is a different place from what it was when Jackson was killed. This trial feels like a down payment on a new day.

Still, I feel sorrier for John Charmo now than I ever imagined I could six years ago.

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