PITTSBURGH, PA – District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said his office will re-file charges against a Pittsburgh police officer accused of using excessive force to arrest a man at Heinz Field in November, saying a judge and jury should weigh the evidence, not a magistrate.
District Judge Robert Ravenstahl dismissed charges of simple assault and official oppression against Sgt. Stephen Matakovich on Monday, to the cheers of police gathered at Pittsburgh Municipal Court.
“(The district judge’s) job is to determine whether or not there’s probable cause that a crime has been committed. … The video of what happened this particular evening was put into evidence at the preliminary hearing; clearly, there’s probable cause.
“We can find no justification for use of force on that boy.”
Police and the District Attorney’s Office filed the initial charges against Matakovich in December based on surveillance video from Heinz Field that showed him shoving Gabriel Despres, then 19, to the ground, then repeatedly striking Despres while he was on the ground or as he attempted to get up. Matakovich’s report said he struck and arrested Despres after the young man had clenched his fist and taken an aggressive stance, then lunged at him.
Zappala said his office was awaiting transcripts of the first preliminary hearing and hoped to have additional witness testimony from a security guard present during the arrest. The guard was not available Monday because he was traveling to attend the Super Bowl, Zappala said.
He also said police administration is looking into whether the uniformed officers who attended Matakovich’s hearing in Ravenstahl’s court were on-duty at the time. The proceeding lasted several hours.
“The question of on-duty or off-duty aside, the mayor feels that police have the right to attend court hearings — as does any member of the public,” said Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. “He has said that more people from the community may want to attend the next court hearing so the district judge presiding can hear their voices and see their faces in the crowd as well.”
The FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and Pittsburgh police administration are still looking into the case.
Police Chief Cameron McLay issued a statement Wednesday that said he would support Zappala’s office if it re-filed the charges.
“While we respect the chief’s personal opinion, the processes that are in place by outside agencies are out of our control,” said Fraternal Order of Police President Howard McQuillan in a statement Thursday. “What the chief does have control over is the continuing internal investigation, which by our working agreement cannot be commented on at this time.
“While Sgt. Matakovich’s case is important to the administration and the city as an employer, I find it interesting that the media and the administration continue to focus on this as a priority rather than the increase in violent crime across the city,” McQuillan wrote.
Matakovich remains on paid administrative leave.