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Prosecution experts make their case for unlawful use of deadly force

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Prosecution witnesses continued their testimonies and expert presentations in the afternoon of March 16 at Lehigh County Courthouse during the voluntary manslaughter trial of former South Whitehall police officer Jonathan Roselle to make their case that Roselle’s use of deadly force was not reasonable, justifiable or legal.

The main witness was Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Kevin Selverian, a use of force specialist. During the first part of his testimony, Selvarian walked through the different equipment Roselle was carrying during the incident.

He noted that Roselle was carrying a Level III retention holster for his firearm, which requires three specific motions to be taken before the pistol can be retrieved. Selvarian said that all security measures were functional, and that officers were also taught numerous tactics to prevent a suspect from gaining control of the firearm.

He also displayed the Taser holster, noting the similar safety measures to the pistol holster.

While Roselle’s defense team had argued in their opening statement that deploying a Taser was not appropriate without “lethal cover” from another officer, Selvarian said there was no rule that solo officers should not or cannot deploy their Taser.

Upon inspection of Santos’ T-shirt, Selvarian said the clothing material would not pose an issue for the Taser barbs to penetrate, and said officers were instructed that thin clothes like a T-shirt were not obstructive enough to cause concern.

Selvarian also displayed images of the police car’s weapons rack, which contained a patrol rifle and shotgun, and said it had a “handcuff” style locking mechanism to prevent unauthorized individuals from retrieving the weapons.

He also said that the release button was unlabeled and blended into the cruiser’s dash panel. “If you didn’t know what it was, it would be more difficult to locate,” Selvarian said.

He added that in his experience as a state trooper, he had never seen or heard of a suspect removing the locked weapons from a cruiser without specialized tools or discovering the release system.

Regarding use of force standards, Selvarian described the difference between bodily and serious bodily injury, and lethal and less-lethal force, saying it was important that officers “become intimate with the distinctions.”

He said officers were taught to assess threats of deadly force by considering four factors.

The first factor was whether a suspect had the ability to carry out the threat, either with weapons or if the suspect was physically large and strong enough to cause death with their bare hands.

The second consideration Selvarian described was opportunity, whether a suspect was in striking distance to use their weapon or physical ability to cause death or serious bodily injury.

The third factor was a “significant step,” which Selvarian described as whether a suspect “initiated, enacted or started down the path of that threat.”

He said this was the most critical factor because officers needed to be trained to respond to the increasing probability of a threat of death or serious bodily injury occurring in an escalating situation – the “significant step” being taken - not just the possibility that such a threat could arise.

“You cannot take preemptive deadly force,” Selverian said.

Finally, Selvarian noted that even in a situation where deadly force was lawfully authorized, officers were trained to consider whether nonlethal options could be used to resolve the situation.

Selvarian also referred to the use of force continuum, a model showing different classifications of assailants and the appropriate force options for each category and noted that deadly force was only to be used against a suspect whose actions would likely cause death or serious bodily injury.

“We’re not conditioned to use deadly force,” he said, adding that police officers were also trained to apply the threat assessment process very quickly, especially in common encounters faced by police officers.

Reviewing Roselle’s camera footage, Selverian said he would classify Santos’ actions as a person threatening physical, but not serious, injury or a person who was “aggressively offensive without weapons,” and that he should have been subdued with the Taser, baton or OC spray.

Neither classification, Selvarian said, authorized the use of deadly force.

In addition to Selvarian, state police Cpl. Joshua Guthrie, an expert in scene/collision reconstruction and investigation, testified to the distances and separation between Santos and Roselle during the final moments before the shooting.

Based on video footage, maps and drone image reconstruction, Guthrie said Santos was between 38 and 46 feet away from Roselle when he turned toward the officer, who was ordering him to get on the ground with his weapon drawn. Guthrie also said Santos was between 10 and 15 feet away from Roselle when the first shot was fired.

Based on frame-by-frame analysis of Roselle’s bodycam footage, he also determined that Santos was moving at an average walking pace between 3.4 and 4.6 ft/s and said there was no indication that Santos had accelerated or lunged toward Roselle.

Trooper Suzanne Creelman, a member of the state police’s forensic services unit, testified that she was called collect evidence and take photographs related to the shooting.

She walked the jury through the pieces of clothing taken from Santos’ body at the hospital and Roselle’s duty equipment. Creelman noted that the battery life of the Taser was full, and that it came equipped with two complete cartridges.

During the cross-examination, defense attorney Gavin Holihan asked Creelman how the ASP baton was attached to the duty belt, and if any retention measures kept the baton in place. Creelman said the baton was connected by its holding pouch with no additional restraints.

Holihan also asked about the number of magazines and bullets collected from Roselle.

Creelman said while she collected three magazines, including the one inside Roselle’s Glock pistol, she could not recall the number of total rounds retrieved without referring to her report.

Roselle was acquitted of the voluntary manslaughter charge March 19, after six hours of jury deliberation.