(The Root) — On Nov. 11, 2012, just before 10 p.m., Leon Ford Jr. looked in his rearview mirror and saw flashing lights.
Ford pulled to the side of the road. Almost everything that happened next — whether Ford should have been stopped, what happened when Pittsburgh police officers approached Ford's car, what Ford and the three officers said and did, even the order of events — is disputed.
But this much is not: Ford, 19 at the time of the incident and unarmed, was shot multiple times and left paralyzed below his waist and now faces up to 20 years in prison. He has been charged with aggravated assault along with two counts of reckless endangerment and traffic violations, including running a stop sign and reckless driving.
On Wednesday, lawyers for Ford will ask a judge to throw out the state's case because of what they say is ample evidence that the officers violated department policies during the stop — leaving Ford in reasonable fear for his life and creating the conditions for the crimes of which Ford now stands accused — and that the officers lied about the details of the roadside incident in written statements made under oath. In addition, none of the three officers involved were wearing fully functional required audio recorders at the time that Ford was stopped, questioned and ultimately shot.
Ford's legal team includes a pair of Pittsburgh lawyers — brothers Monte and Fred Rabner — and Benjamin Crump, a Florida litigator who also represents Trayvon Martin's family.
Ford's case raises questions about the net effects of racial profiling, the ability of technology to discern truth in racially charged situations and just what young black men can really do to protect themselves from the danger that police can sometimes pose.
In the months that have followed Ford's shooting, his lawyers took the city to court to obtain footage from a police-cruiser dashboard camera that recorded video of the incident. A police-watchdog group, the Citizen Police Review Board, has also said that the officers may have violated police policy by jumping into Ford's car, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The decision left officers particularly vulnerable to the potential for serious harm, the group's executive director, Elizabeth Pittinger, told the paper.
Ford's case seems poised for the same national spotlight that drew attention to Florida's gun laws this past year. Ford started a petition on Change.org calling for Pittsburgh's district attorney to drop assault charges against him. Ford's parents will appear on CNN this week. And on Tuesday night, about 14 hours before Ford was due in court, Crump and a group of local civil rights advocates staged an event on the steps of the Allegheny County Courthouse, where they aired the video of the traffic stop.
"I think this case here is not just about Leon Ford Jr.," Crump told The Root. "This case shows us that we have reached a point where young black men have real and legitimate reason to fear for their lives when they interact with some of these police departments and the really tragic consequences of racial profiling. This is a case that really ought to make America do more than squirm."
The Pittsburgh Police Department declined to comment on the case on Tuesday, citing a pending civil rights lawsuit that Ford and his family have filed against the department. As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, police say that during a routine traffic stop, Ford refused to answer officers' questions. One of the officers claimed that Ford then reached for something, and when the officer opened the passenger door in response, Ford drove off. It was then that he was shot. The shooting remains under investigation.
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.