(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News)
By Brittany Hailer, Mary Niederberger and Jody DiPerna
PITTSBUGRH — In the early morning hours of April 24, 2017, Todd Robinson parked a borrowed car he was driving in a Wilkinsburg alley and went to sleep.
That decision started a chain of events that began with a parking ticket, escalated to a shooting by Wilkinsburg police and landed him in the Allegheny County Jail for more than four years.
He has yet to go to trial.
On December 14, Robinson’s attorney Thomas Farrell is scheduled to argue before Common Pleas Judge Randal Todd that his client should be released because he has not been brought to trial within the statutory amount of time of 180 days. The right to a speedy trial is guaranteed under Rule 600 of the Pennsylvania Code. Rule 600 motions had been suspended by President Judge Kimberly Berkeley Clark at the onset of the pandemic in April, 2020. That suspension was lifted on October 21.
Farrell could not be reached for comment and it is unclear why Robinson has spent more than four years in the county jail without going to trial.
Court records indicate Farrell is Robinson’s third lawyer and on eight different dates since November 2017, the case was put on the docket for a trial that hasn’t occurred. Robinson was offered a plea deal in June 2017 and again in October 2020, but he turned down both because he says he wants to go to trial to prove his innocence.
Mike Manko, spokesperson for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, said the office does not comment on pending cases.
Sandra Mayson, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, said: “There are supposed to be constraints on the duration of pretrial detention, but the constraints are not effective. There are statutory speedy trial rules in most states. And then there’s a constitutional limit—the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial—but it’s a very amorphous standard and the time is halted or paused when the defendant continues the trial. It’s just not a very robust guarantee.”
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts provides data on the adjudication of criminal cases across the Commonwealth and by county. In Allegheny County, less than one percent of the criminal cases which were resolved in 2019 went to jury trial.
In addition to the unusually long pre-trial confinement, how did a routine traffic ticket—a citation which falls under the civil code —turn into a violent confrontation which ended in a man being shot? Robinson questions why the Wilkinsburg police requested identification from him when they were making a welfare check?
Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia Coleman declined to comment for this story.
While questions regarding the case remain unanswered, a review by the Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism of police investigative records, legal filings and interviews with Robinson bring together details of the events that led to Robinson’s shooting and detention.
Here is the story that emerges.
How It Happened
Todd Robinson was staying with a friend in New Castle. But on the night of April 24, 2017, he visited someone in the east end of Pittsburgh. His visit ended sometime after midnight, and instead of driving back to New Castle, he decided to sleep in the borrowed black Hyundai he was driving as he had plans to meet his cousin at an auto body shop in Wilkinsburg at 8 a.m.
At about 3 a.m., he parked the car on Taylor Way, a narrow, dark alley in Wilkinsburg, reclined the driver’s seat, pulled his jacket over him for a blanket and went to sleep.
According to transcripts of interviews given to Allegheny County detectives by Wilkinsburg Sgt. Matthew Morrison and Officer Chris Duncan, Morrison was writing parking tickets and tagging abandoned cars along Taylor Way around 4:25 a.m.. As he went to put a ticket on the windshield of a black Hyundai, he noticed Robinson sleeping in the car.
Morrison called Duncan for assistance. When he arrived, they knocked on the window and asked the man for identification.
In Robinson’s defense brief filed in August 2019, his former attorney Patrick A. Sweeney, argued that the original encounter between Robinson and the police began as a “welfare check” and “then soon was raised to search and seizure without reasonable suspicion.” The defense’s motion to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of his license background check was denied.
The defense’s position was that, “Mr. Robinson was subjected to an illegal investigatory detention when, after determining that he was not in distress or in need of police assistance, the Wilkinsburg police requested and then retained possession of his driver’s license in order to conduct an NCIC check not supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity … but too, in the fact that after completed, Mr. Robinson was advised by Duncan that he was free to leave…”
According to Morrison and Duncan’s statements, dispatch indicated “no wants, no warrants” after a background check on Robinson’s ID. They gave Robinson a parking ticket and told him to move the car and come back later when the autobody shop opened. Robinson drove out of the alley.
The check of records did not indicate that Robinson had violated parole by leaving the halfway house where he was supposed to be staying after his release from prison. Robinson said he left the halfway house about two weeks prior to this incident and he was sure the parole violation would pop up when he handed over his license. He was relieved when it didn’t.
A few minutes after Robinson left, Wilkinsburg police dispatch called the officers back, correcting the earlier report and indicating Robinson had a parole violation. Morrison told county investigators, “… it was a parole violation, and he has a propensity for violence, some sort of, with a weapons charge, and something to that effect.”
In 1995, when he was 17, Robinson shot a man during a robbery. He served more than 20 years for homicide, leaving prison in March 2017, a month before his encounter with Wilkinsburg police.
According to the officers’ statements, they separated to search Wilkinsburg for Robinson. About an hour after that second call from dispatch, Duncan and Morrison were patrolling separately when Morrison spotted the Hyundai in the parking lot of the McDonald’s at the corner of Penn and Pennwood Avenues. Duncan pulled in diagonally behind the Hyundai and Morrison pulled in behind Duncan. Duncan said he attempted to talk to Robinson.
Robinson said he didn’t see the police when he first walked out of the restaurant, but even when he did, he didn’t think they were there for him.
“They just let me go an hour ago. I see the lights come on. So I’m looking, I’m thinking something happened in the McDonald’s or something,” Robinson said.
What Happened Next
This next part happened quickly, according to all involved.
Robinson got in his car. He remembers putting his coffee in the cupholder and then Duncan was at the driver’s side of the Hyundai. Morrison said Duncan and Robinson got to the car at the same time. Morrison stated he exited his car and moved to a spot on the passenger side of the car. He told investigators he drew his weapon at this point.
Duncan said he had his hand on the driver’s door of the car. Robinson said Duncan yelled and reached into the car as he reached towards his weapon with his other hand.
Robinson said he feared for his life, thinking to himself, “He’s going to kill me. It’s in his eyes.”
“[Duncan] said ‘Motherf—r’ and he reached for his firearm. That’s what made me do what I did,” Robinson said.
Duncan said he had similar fears about Robinson. He told county police he let go of the door handle and he thought he knew what Robinson was thinking: “I was in fear for my safety, I mean this guy would have did (sic) anything to get away, even if that meant, striking my sarge, and he didn’t care.”
I know I wouldn’t have lived. The two shots that fired in my back tells me they would have continued to shoot
– Todd Robinson
Robinson backed the car up and hit the police vehicle behind him. Robinson said he didn’t even know it was there until he hit it.
There are conflicting descriptions of what happened next, but at some point Duncan fired into the car, shooting Robinson. According to court documents, Morrison fired one round and Duncan fired at least two.
Robinson was shot in the shoulder and the bullet entered the left side of his chest, according to his medical records. He drove out of the lot quickly. He feared for his life.
“I know I wouldn’t have lived. The two shots that fired in my back tells me they would have continued to shoot,” he said.
As he drove away from the McDonald’s parking lot, Robinson said he was bleeding heavily. Duncan got in his car and took off after Robinson. Morrison followed behind.
Robinson crashed near the Family Dollar store at the corner of Penn and Brushton Avenues. Duncan spotted the Hyundai. He found Robinson injured and bleeding in bushes alongside the Family Dollar.
Robinson survived the shooting and underwent surgery for a gunshot wound to his left shoulder at UPMC Shadyside. The day after the shooting, Allegheny County Police filed a criminal complaint against him, charging ten criminal counts: aggravated assault (two counts), possession of a firearm, criminal mischief, carrying a firearm without a license, fleeing or attempting elude police, reckless endangerment (two counts), vehicle or property damage and reckless driving.
Robinson was taken to the Allegheny County Jail. He has remained there since.
Following this incident, Duncan was awarded “2017 Officer of the Year” by the Teamsters Local Union 205. In the award announcement, the union published a statement written by Duncan that included his account of shooting Robinson and Paul Anthony Adams Jr., 32, who Duncan shot and critically wounded eight months later. Adams ran a red light in Point Breeze, and when pulled over, got out of his car with a shotgun. Duncan shot Adams.
The Court Case
In 2018, Adams was sentenced to six years in prison for two counts of aggravated assault.
The possession of a firearm charge against Robinson stemmed from police discovering a gun in a bag under the passenger seat of his friend’s car. The gun was found by Allegheny County police after they obtained a search warrant following the shooting. Because Robinson had a felony conviction, he is prohibited from purchasing or possessing a firearm.
Robinson said the gun was not his and he didn’t know it was in the vehicle. Police and court records do not include any accusations that Robinson used or showed the gun during the incident. Sweeney, Robinson’s former attorney, also motioned to suppress evidence of the gun in August 2019.
The suppression motion argued there was no probable cause to search the vehicle.
The Supreme Court ruled that evidence found by officers during illegal stops may be used in court if officers conducted searches after confirming suspects had outstanding warrants.
Judge Todd found that Robinson’s constitutional rights were not violated and the motions to suppress evidence from the license background check and the search warrant for the vehicle were denied in July 2019.
Sweeney wrote in the motion, “…the subsequent flight, car crash and gathering of evidence inside the car, are ‘fruit of the poisonous tree’ created by Officer Duncan’s actions and the Commonwealth should not be permitted to use any evidence gathered in the Hyundai after the crash…”
Of hitting the police cruiser, Robinson said: “I was trying to save my own life.”
Brittany Hailer, Mary Niederberger and Jody DiPerna are reporters for the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, where this story first appeared. Brittany Hailer can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.
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