Judge denies York DA's motion to drop case against ex-cop who shot man in leg
A York County judge has denied District Attorney Dave Sunday's motion to drop the simple assault case against former Southwestern Regional police officer Stu Harrison, who shot a handcuffed man sitting in the back of a police cruiser.
Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook noted during Monday's hearing that she "had a number of concerns" about the prosecution's motion to nol pros, meaning dismiss, the charge against Harrison.
Cases are generally nol prossed because the evidence in them doesn't support convictions, she noted.
"We did not find this to be a case of insufficient evidence," Cook said. "We find that the purpose of nol pros has not been met."
She noted the case had been scheduled to go to trial in July 2019, then again in September.
Cook said she's not sure prosecutors can secure a conviction, but said that's a concern for another day.
The background: Sunday filed a motion May 28 asking Cook to dismiss the misdemeanor simple assault case against Harrison in the "interests of justice."
In response, Ryan Shane Smith — the man Harrison shot in the leg as Smith was handcuffed and partially sitting in a police cruiser — wrote a letter to Cook opposing the request, asking that she set a hearing and stating, "I was pushed to the side and brushed under the rug and covered up."
Prosecutors maintain dropping the charge is in the interests of justice. Their motion states Harrison, 58, now of South Carolina, was a well-respected police officer for 16 years before being suspended for the shooting and that he served as a Marine before becoming an officer. He has spoken to two groups of cadets in a police academy about his mistakes and how to avoid them, the DA has said.
It's believed by officials that Harrison inadvertently shot Smith after grabbing his .40-caliber handgun instead of his Taser, putting it against Smith's leg and firing when Smith wouldn't pull his legs inside the cruiser after being arrested for refusing to leave a Spring Grove bank.
At the hearing, Sunday told Cook he thought Smith's mother, who has power of attorney for her son, was giving him updates that were provided to her about the case.
Christine Smith told the judge that while she was told that prosecutors were considering dropping the case, she didn't tell her son because she didn't think it was definitely going to happen and because he had a lot going on in his life. She said she wrote a letter to the DA opposing dropping the case.
Ryan Smith and his mother said in court that they believe Harrison should have been charged with something more serious than simple assault, which is a second-degree misdemeanor.
Sunday said he feels awful for the Smiths, but that he and others repeatedly explained to Christine Smith why Harrison received just the simple assault charge.
He noted that in similar cases elsewhere, most district attorney's offices have chosen not to file any charges against officers.
No prison time: Sunday also argued that if the case goes to trial and Harrison is found guilty, "he might get a year of probation," or even less punishment
Sunday told the judge that he stands by his decision to file the nol pros motion and believes in his heart it's the right thing to do.
This is "one of those unique cases" in which no available punishment will outweigh the pain and suffering felt by Ryan Smith and by his mother, according to the DA. Christine Smith was standing next to her son when he was shot and was spattered with his blood.
Ryan and Christine Smith both said they now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Prior to denying the prosecution's motion, Cook said she was struck by the fact that the motion discussed "a lot about sentencing considerations," which normally aren't a factor until after a guilty verdict or guilty plea.
"Aren't you basically usurping the judge's role?" she asked. "I'm trying to figure out why we're jumping over that step."
'Slam-dunk case'? Ryan Smith said he said he nearly died in the hospital and suffered a pulmonary embolism.
"My life was turned upside down," he said, adding a trial for Harrison "should be a slam-dunk case" and said he can't believe they were even discussing dropping it.
He noted that because he was handcuffed and sitting in the cruiser, and because another Southwestern Regional officer was on scene, it would have been wrong for Harrison to shock him with a Taser, which is what officials believe Harrison was trying to do when he shot the man.
Christine Smith told Judge Cook that if dropping the case was, as the DA argued, in the interests of justice, then "I'm confused as to who the justice is for."
After the hearing, she said she had been afraid the judge would simply grant the DA's motion and was happy that didn't happen.
"I feel like the judge spoke on my behalf and on Ryan's behalf," she said.
OK with plea deal: Christine Smith said she's still in favor of a plea agreement in which Harrison pleads guilty to something and receives no prison time.
"We just want to see some justice," she said.
The shooting happened May 30, 2018, in the parking lot of Santander Bank at 39 W. Hanover St. in Spring Grove.
Harrison was called there near the end of his shift because Ryan Smith, who has mental-health issues, was causing a disturbance in the bank, asking for his money when he didn't have an account there.
Smith, 34, of Jackson Township, is currently in York County Prison on a probation violation.
On May 11, he and his mother filed a lawsuit in Harrisburg's federal court against Harrison, the former Southwestern Regional Police Department, its now-disbanded police board and Spring Grove borough.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.