The trial in the federal court civil lawsuit filed by the family of a Richland woman fatally shot in 2020 by two Pennsylvania state troopers is set to start in Harrisburg on Nov. 27, 2023.

42-year-old Charity Thome was shot seven times on March 16, 2020, by Troopers Jay Splain and Matthew Haber after a high-speed, early-morning vehicular chase that ended on rural King Street in South Lebanon Township. She died inside her car.

Splain had already been involved in two fatal shootings while on duty. In November 2020, Derek Thome, on behalf of Charity Thome’s estate, filed a federal civil lawsuit against Splain, Haber, and the Pennsylvania State Police, alleging that Splain and Haber were not justified in using deadly force against Thome.

A year later, Splain was involved in a fourth fatal shooting that saw Andy Dzwonchyk, a 40-year-old Jonestown man, killed in Union Township. A civil lawsuit filed by Dzwonchyk’s estate over his death was settled by Pennsylvania State Police in September 2022 for $1.75 million.

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Thome had no firearms or weapons when she was shot, but shortly afterwards, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf said that “underneath her person, on the seat, was a large metal railroad spike” that was “about a foot long, about as long as my forearm.”

In pretrial testimony in the lawsuit, Haber and Splain said they did not see the spike or any weapons before opening fire on Thome.

Hess Graf also noted that Thome had methamphetamine in her system when she died.

In the original lawsuit filing, the Thome estate’s attorneys said Thome’s history of mental illness and substance abuse was known to police prior to the incident, and the officers could have used substantially lesser means than killing Thome to de-escalate the situation.

The state has previously confirmed Splain and Haber were aware Thome was a known methamphetamine user in an initial response to the suit.

On the day before her death, an arrest warrant had been issued after Thome tried twice to enter a private residence where she had once lived.

Splain and Haber said they justifiably opened fire only when Thome, after disobeying their commands to stop, attempted to ram a North Lebanon Township police cruiser with her car, possibly endangering a third officer nearby.

Dashcam audio and video from a North Cornwall police car about 100 yards away captured the moment shots were fired. LebTown analyzed the footage in-depth in August 2022.

Hess Graf later cleared both troopers of any criminal wrongdoing, finding that the troopers justifiably feared for their safety and that of the third officer nearby.

Read More: DA discusses details, process that led to justified shooting finding in Thome death

At the time of the shooting, Hess Graf’s husband, Trooper Chris Graf, was Splain’s superior at the PSP Jonestown barracks. The DA has said that did not constitute a conflict of interest that would have required her to hand the investigation over to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.

In February 2022, the local branch of the NAACP filed an ethics complaint against Hess Graf with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, alleging a conflict of interest due to her husband being Splain’s supervisor. That complaint is believed to still be open, although confidentiality rules prevent the Disciplinary Board from commenting on its status.

Read More: NYT reports DA’s husband supervised state cop when Charity Thome was fatally shot; DA did not recuse office from case

The U.S. Supreme Court has 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 at the moment.

In a case addressing the use of deadly force, including guns, the Supreme Court further ruled that deadly force can be used only when an officer reasonably believes the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or to others.

Pretrial lawsuit developments made public

As happens in most lawsuits, the parties have conducted “pretrial discovery,” a process where they exchange documents and evidence and take depositions — under-oath pretrial testimony of those involved — in preparation for trial or settlement.

Often, this “discovery information” is not publicly disclosed unless the judge is asked to make a pretrial ruling or to resolve a dispute based on information revealed in discovery.

That happened in April when both sides filed a flurry of motions and requests, most of which asked U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner to rule on whether certain testimony, witnesses, and evidence can be presented at trial.

Such requests, known as “motions in limine,” are often made in advance to avoid prejudicing the jury and wasting trial time.

Because of those motions, discovery evidence and the deposition testimony of Splain, Haber, and former North Lebanon officer Ryan Haase, who was at the scene, have now been publicly filed with the court.

Splain, Haber, third officer on scene give pretrial testimony under oath

At his February 2022 deposition, Splain testified he and Haber fired nine shots into Thome’s stationary vehicle after it came to rest in a field, and seven came from his gun.

Autopsy records showed that Thome was shot seven times, including five shots that entered her back.

Recounting the final moments before shots were fired, Splain testified, “I exited my vehicle, drew my service weapon, and began running towards Ms. Thome’s vehicle while shouting the commands get out of the car, get out of the car, show me your hands. I was yelling at the top of my lungs …”

At that point, Splain testified there were “two to three car lengths” between Thome’s car and a North Lebanon Township police car driven by officer Haase.

Looking at Thome’s left side through her open driver’s side door, Splain testified, “I believe I yelled stop at her once I saw her put the car back in gear and stomp on the gas to — to ram the North Lebanon unit.”

According to Splain, Thome then accelerated toward Haase’s vehicle while Haase was out of his view.

Splain was adamant that Thome intentionally rammed Haase’s car. “That’s a ram. It’s something that’s done on — on purpose,” he testified. “A collision is something that happens as a result of an uncontrolled circumstances, you know, beyond the operator’s control, like a crash.”

No airbags were deployed in either vehicle as a result of the impact.

Image filed in the Thome estate’s lawsuit showing the damage incurred by the NLTPD vehicle when it was struck by Thome’s vehicle.

Splain testified he did not see any weapon, including the metal spike, before opening fire, other than Thome’s car. “Other than her vehicle, which she had weaponized, I did not see another weapon,” Splain told Thome’s lawyer.

Trooper Haber’s deposition testimony was largely consistent with Splain’s.

Officer Haase was also deposed under oath and testified that he never felt he was in danger from Thome or her vehicle and didn’t believe the public was in danger at any time.

No word on possible out-of-court settlement

Many lawsuits alleging unlawful use of force by law enforcement officers are settled before trial. So far, neither side has given any public indication that settlement negotiations have been attempted.

Barring a settlement, Judge Conner has scheduled a pretrial conference with the attorneys on Nov. 1, and told the parties that jury selection will begin on Monday, Nov. 27, with trial to start immediately afterward.

Splain remains on administrative leave and is currently assigned to PSP’s Member Assistance Program as a regional coordinator. That program “exists to provide confidential assistance to personnel and their immediate family members who are experiencing personal, emotional, psychological, or related medical problems,” according to the state police.

Read More: After 4 killings, Splain’s PSP admin duty assignment: Mental health counselor

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Chris Coyle writes primarily on government, the courts, and business. He retired as an attorney at the end of 2018, after concentrating for nearly four decades on civil and criminal litigation and trials. A career highlight was successfully defending a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was accused,...


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