A day after announcing that her investigation into the March 16 fatal police shooting of Charity Thome had cleared the four officers involved, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf spoke to LebTown about the investigation and the process that led to her finding.
Thome, 42, was fatally shot after a high speed early morning vehicular chase that started on Heilmandale Road in North Lebanon Township and ended 10 miles later on dark and rural King Street in Jackson Township.
Police had obtained an arrest warrant for Thome after she tried twice in 24 hours to break in to a Heilmandale Road residence where Hess Graf said she had once lived. “It’s my understanding that she resided there at some point. There was property of hers that had been placed outside for her to collect.”
During the pursuit, Thome not only ran through stop signs and traffic controls at high speed, but “in the final minutes of the pursuit, there were moments when she was rolling her window down and throwing metal objects at the first pursuing car, which at that point was the State Police.” Hess Graf described some of those objects as “auto parts.”
Police attempts to disable Thome’s car with the “PIT maneuver” were unsuccessful. The chase ended only when Thome lost control and skidded into a field along the unlit roadway.
She then accelerated and rammed a North Lebanon Township police car with an officer inside. After she ignored commands to stop, state troopers fired into her car, fatally wounding her.
In a press release, Hess Graf said that toxicology tests on Thome’s body revealed “an extremely high level of methamphetamine” at the time of the chase. “I spoke to the pathologist to confirm my reading of the report.”
Hess Graf also revealed for the first time that, while no firearms were found on Thome or in her car, “underneath her person, on the seat, was a large metal railroad spike” that was “about a foot long, about as long as my forearm.”
Thome’s death was the first time Hess Graf had led a police-involved shooting investigation, although as an assistant DA she had worked with her predecessor, David Arnold, on others.
She said her office had a written plan for investigating police shootings ready at the time of Thome’s death, which was developed through experience with earlier incidents.
An ideal investigation into a police shooting, according to the DA, would not involve anyone connected to any involved police department.
However, that consideration often has to yield to the realities of law enforcement in a small county. Forensics labs, forensic experts, and the latest technology and equipment are expensive – beyond her office’s and the county’s budgets.
“The State Police are unique in that they have vast investigative resources that municipal police forces and our office do not,” Hess said. “In this case, P.S.P. provided assistance in processing the scene. We used them because they can do a better job than we can.”
Hess Graf, accompanied by Chief County detective Daniel Wright, visited the scene at about 4:00 a.m. that morning, roughly two hours after the incident. None of the involved officers were present. She and Wright were “walked through” by other officers whose job was to preserve the crime scene.
A State Police accident reconstruction team used a 3-D scanner to create a computer model of the scene and the locations of every vehicle involved. A drone flyover documented tire marks on the roadway to determine the vehicles’ paths in the final moments.
Hess Graf added that State Police ballistics experts examined the rounds fired at the scene, as well as every firearm that was present, whether or not it had been fired.
Hess Graf said that P.S.P.’s involvement in the investigation ended when it finished documenting the crime scene and examining the physical evidence.
From there, the DA and her county detectives interviewed the four officers involved in the chase, viewed dash cam video from the two municipal police cruisers, and listened to audio of the Heilmandale Road homeowner’s 911 call.
Hess Graf said that no civilian eyewitnesses were seen on the dash cam video, and none came forward, probably because the incident took place at about 2:00 a.m. on a Monday morning.
The last minutes
As Hess Graf described them, the final minutes of the incident were marked by violence and confusion in the darkness.
The North Lebanon police cruiser was the first to catch up to Thome after her vehicle skidded into the field. The State Police cruiser was next on the scene, and a North Cornwall Township cruiser was somewhere farther back.
The state troopers saw Thome’s car ram the North Lebanon cruiser, then partially block their view of it.
Not knowing if the North Lebanon officer had gotten out of his damaged car, the troopers got out of theirs and approached on foot to within about 20 feet of Thome’s car, yelling for her to stop and surrender.
Hess Graf said at that point the troopers heard Thome’s engine accelerating and saw her tires spinning. Fearing that Thome might go forward toward the North Lebanon officer, or back up toward them, and not knowing if a North Cornwall officer might be somewhere nearby, one of the troopers fired his gun into Thome’s car, killing her.
Update 11:30 a.m.
After this story was published, a reader contacted LebTown to point out that District Attorney Hess Graf’s husband is a Pennsylvania State Police Corporal stationed at the Jonestown Barracks. The two troopers involved in the Thome incident are also stationed there.
We contacted Hess Graf and asked whether her husband’s status presented a conflict of interest that should have required her office to withdraw from the Thome investigation and refer it to the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Her April 27 email response is quoted in full below:
“My husband is a Corporal at PSP Jonestown. He had nothing to do with this incident or the investigation. Our Office created a formal Conflict policy in place which governs how we handle any incidents which involve him. The Policy existed far before the THOME incident. We’ve met with the President Judge on the topic, sent a copy of the Conflict Policy to PSP, and met with the Station Commander to cement in the understanding of what our Office can and cannot do. The Attorney General’s Office prosecutes cases which are a conflict for our Office, this now includes any case in which my husband is an affiant or substantial witness. He had no input or involvement in any way. Given my husband’s utter lack of involvement, I did not refer the case to the AG’s Office.”
“The [Pennsylvania State Police] accident reconstructionist [who documented the Thome crime scene] is a Corporal, stationed at another barracks. The accident recon training/expertise is a very specialized position. As such, this Corporal is responsible to cover Lebanon, Berks, and Schuylkill counties at a minimum. He will travel to other areas if needed.”
Background on the law regarding police use of force
Two U.S. Supreme Court cases set the general rules for the justifiable use of force by police officers.
In Graham v. Connor, decided in 1989, the Supreme Court held that any use of force by an officer, deadly or not, must be “objectively reasonable.” This determination is made from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, taking into account what the officer knew then and there.
An earlier case from 1985, Tennessee v. Garner, dealt specifically with the use of deadly force, including firearms. There, the Supreme Court ruled that deadly force can be used only when an officer reasonably believes that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to others.
Any use of force by an agent of the government against a citizen is considered a “seizure” of the person, and must be reasonable under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Some courts have also ruled that an unjustified use of force violates the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the infliction of cruel or unusual punishment.
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