Parkland Press

Friday, June 5, 2020
PRESS PHOTO COURTESY OF HANNAH ROSELLEA very happy Jonathan Roselle is flanked by his defense team Gavin Holihan and Jenna Fliszar after the not guilty verdict on March 19 following his trial in the shooting death of Joseph Santos near Dorney Park. PRESS PHOTO COURTESY OF HANNAH ROSELLEA very happy Jonathan Roselle is flanked by his defense team Gavin Holihan and Jenna Fliszar after the not guilty verdict on March 19 following his trial in the shooting death of Joseph Santos near Dorney Park.

NOT GUILTY

Friday, March 27, 2020 by SARIT LASCHINSKY Special to The Press in Local News

Shooting by former South Whitehall police officer was justified, jury says

Jurors deliberated almost six hours before delivering the verdict around 6:45 p.m. March 19.

After being acquitted, Roselle was escorted by cheering friends, family and supporters from the courthouse.

Closing Arguments

Earlier in the day, jurors heard closing arguments from Roselle’s defense and prosecutors.

His attorney, Gavin Holihan, said the “fundamental bottom line” was Roselle’s actions were reasonable, justifiable and legal, and thus could not constitute a crime.

He noted toxicology reports determined Santos had a variety of controlled substances in his system at the time including morphine, codeine and metabolites of heroin.

Holihan also said Santos’ behavior — attacking vehicles, pointing to his eyes while covered in blood, apparent imperviousness to pain, and approaching Roselle in the presence of a loaded firearm pointed in his direction — led Roselle to consider him a threat and deduce if Santos had reached him, there would have been a physical struggle, the risk of being disarmed and death.

The defense attorney also noted his experts, including a counsel for Axon, the manufacturer of Tasers, said the use of a Taser or other nonlethal options was inappropriate and that a reasonable officer, given the same totality of circumstances, would have made the same decision to use deadly force.

“Jonathan doesn’t have to wait to be reasonable; he doesn’t have to be right to be reasonable,” Holihan said, noting officers must make snap decisions in response to rapidly changing situations, and must be judged from their perspective in the moment without the benefit of hindsight.

Holihan said Roselle held “honest, bona fide” beliefs that his use of force was justified and that statements made after the shooting to fellow officers including saying “I think I f---ed up” showed Roselle’s humanity as a person in shock “second-guessing” the justified decision to take a life.

“They’re police officers,” Holihan said. “They’re allowed to have self-doubt. He did what we ask of law enforcement every day in a hard job with no second chances.”

Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Dimmig asked the jury to convict Roselle of voluntary manslaughter and played back the video recordings of Roselle’s dashcam and body camera showing the events of the shooting.

The video shows Roselle inside his SUV being alerted by motorists and arriving at the scene where a staggering Santos approaches and begins banging on the driver’s side of the vehicle.

Drawing his weapon and pointing it at Santos, Roselle orders him to move to the front of the vehicle multiple times, at which point Santos climbs on the hood and strikes the windshield.

Santos then moves to the passenger side, hitting the window several times, before walking away from the SUV.

Roselle exits and orders Santos to “get on the ground” as Santos turns around and walks back toward Roselle, where he was fatally shot five times by the officer.

Displaying a frame-by-frame analysis, Dimmig said as Santos was shot, despite being noncompliant and approaching Roselle, he was walking and unarmed.

“Police officers don’t shoot people for getting close,” Dimmig said. “You can’t kill him for that.”

Roselle’s Testimony

Roselle was questioned by Dimmig on March 18 regarding a previous incident where Roselle said he and several other officers confronted a suspect who was on drugs and wielding a knife.

Dimmig said an officer on the scene deployed a Taser and reported it was effective in apprehending the suspect and said the same action could have been used on Santos.

Roselle disagreed stating that while the Taser deployment was successful, it had little effect.

“The Taser never enabled us to get control,” Roselle said, noting that it took at least four officers “dog-piling” on the suspect and forcing him to the ground before the arrest could be conducted.

Regarding the shooting, Roselle told Dimmig that after he was alerted of a man attacking motorists’ vehicles, he saw Santos striking cars and committing “possible carjacking” activity, circumstances which led him to believe a forcible felony had been committed.

Roselle also testified he called in a possible mental issue as he approached, but also wanted to gather more information on the situation for dispatchers and that when he exited his vehicle to confront Santos he was concerned for the safety of possible bystanders, despite Dimmig saying no people were seen in the immediate vicinity on video.

Roselle said the area around Dorney Park and nearby hotels was busy in the summer.

“It would be negligent of me to assume nobody was there,” Roselle said.

Dimmig asked if he could see that Santos was unarmed.

Roselle replied while he saw no weapon in Santos’ hands, he remembered several incidents which occurred shortly before the shooting of unarmed suspects taking officers’ firearms and shooting and killing them.

Additionally, Roselle said Santos’ unarmed state was irrelevant given his size and strength, breaking of a car window and advancing despite a handgun being pointed at him.

Dimmig pressed Roselle on the various nonlethal options he was carrying, and why he chose not to use them.

Roselle said they were inadequate given the situation, noting his baton was a pain compliance device and would not have been effective on Santos who appeared “impervious to pain.”

Roselle also said he had been exposed to OC spray in training and could fight it.

He added if he “was on four or five drugs” like Santos, it would likely have even less effect.

The only appropriate option, Roselle said, was his pistol.

“It was what I needed to use, what I believed I needed to use,” he said.

Dimmig also asked about Roselle’s post-shooting statements in which he told officers he messed up and did not know what to do. Roselle said he was in shock and it was difficult to recall what happened in the moment.

Before concluding, Dimmig asked Roselle if he “acknowledged that Joseph Santos was a human being.”

“Of course I do,” Roselle responded.

Defense testimony

Roselle’s defense called several witnesses to testify about his character.

Retired army officer Melvin Gomez said he has known Roselle since 2005 when the two were attending the same college in New York.

Gomez said both he and Roselle also went through ROTC together and commissioned into the army at the same time.

He said Roselle was known to be the “voice of reason” for their group, exercised good judgment and was able to “connect people of different backgrounds.”

Lehigh Township Police Officer Jessica Edwards, who was in the same training class as Roselle, testified within the law enforcement community, Roselle had a solid reputation.

Edwards said she had spoken about the case with other members of their academy class and said the shared opinion between officers continues to be that Roselle was fair-minded, “very levelheaded,” a “very good decision maker” and “extremely reasonable.”

Defense Attorney Jenna Fliszar called Christopher Sheeran to testify.

Sheeran was at Dorney Park with his family when Santos approached them. He said Santos had a “bugged out eye look” and said “not you, not again” in Spanish before jumping over a fence.

Sheeran said Santos’ appearance and behavior made him afraid for himself and his children, and said he thought Santos may have been under the influence of narcotics, because Santos’ eyes and mind seemed to be “not there.”

“That’s what scared me the most; I didn’t know what was on his mind at that time,” Sheeran said.

Several experts were also called by the defense to testify.

Use of force specialist Michael Brave, an expert for Taser manufacturer Axon, said Roselle’s Taser was not appropriate to use where an officer faces imminent threat or serious bodily injury.

He said the single-shot device was “too risky to attempt” without another officer providing “lethal cover.”

Brave said using a Taser while Santos was walking toward Roselle would have been less effective than a back shot, as Santos would have full use of his hands to remove the barbs, but added that while Santos was walking away he was out of range.

He also noted that Santos’ clothing could have interfered with the Taser’s probes, while the pain-relieving drugs in his system could also lessen the effect.

He added Santos seemed to be suffering from “excited delirium” or a mind-body disconnect, and said it was sensible for Roselle to assume that Santos could not feel pain based on his bloody hands and breaking car windows.

Looking at the totality of circumstances, Brave said, he “absolutely” believed that Roselle’s decision to use deadly force was reasonable and appropriate.

Attorney Emanuel Kapelsohn, a firearms instructor and use of force expert, said Santos, despite not having “external weapons” like a blunt object or gun, still had his “personal weapons”— hands, feet or head.

He said Santos could have used these personal weapons to cause death or serious bodily injury either through his physical strength or by taking away Roselle’s firearm or equipment and using it on the officer or on bystanders.

He also said Santos had not been searched before the shooting, and that Roselle would not know if he was concealing a weapon on his person. He also explained that Santos moving toward Roselle could have been an attempt to get use a hidden weapon or take away Roselle’s gun.

“The only reasonable thing for the officer to believe is that if Mr. Santos was going to get to him, he was going to attack him,” Kapelsohn said, adding that the only thing which stopped Santos was being shot and that any reasonable officer, given the same totality of circumstances, would make the same decision.

When asked by Holihan if Roselle did anything wrong, Kapelsohn said Roselle “waited until the last possible moment” and could have justifiably fired sooner, although he did not fault Roselle because he believed Roselle wanted to avoid shooting Santos if possible.

“It’s not reasonable to ask an officer to let a large, strong, irrational man get to within arm’s length with a gun in his hand,” Kapelsohn said, adding that in his expert opinion deadly force was not only justified, but the “reasonable choice” in this situation.