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Pennsylvania police officer charged with homicide in suspect's death

Pennsylvania police officer has been charged with homicide in the death of a suspect armed with only a needle

A veteran Pennsylvania police officer was charged with criminal homicide Tuesday in the death of a suspect who was lying on the ground when she shot him last month, prosecutors said.

Hummelstown Police Officer Lisa Mearkle surrendered to authorities Tuesday and will face charges in the Feb. 2 death of David Kassick, 59, whom she was pursuing shortly before the fatal clash, according to her attorney, Brian Perry.

Perry said that Mearkle shot the man in self-defense and that she feared he was reaching for a weapon. 

Kassick was carrying only a hypodermic needle when he was shot. 

“She’s giving him repeated commands to show me your hands, and he keeps tucking them into his waistband under his stomach," Perry told the Los Angeles Times. "What is she supposed to do? Wait for him to roll over and shoot her?”

Calls to the Dauphin County district attorney's office, the Hummelstown Police Department and an attorney representing Kassick's family seeking comment were not returned.

Mearkle tried to pull Kassick over because his vehicle had expired emissions stickers, but he sped away, authorities said, according to a report in the Associated Press.

The officer caught up to Kassick near his sister's home, and Perry said Mearkle attempted to subdue him with a stun gun several times. Kassick fell to the ground and Mearkle shot him twice in the back, officials said, according to the AP report. Prosecutors say Mearkle used deadly force without legal justification.

The entire incident was captured on camera, as the stun guns employed by Hummelstown police are a Taser model equipped with a camera. Perry said that Mearkle was holding both her service weapon and the stun gun at the time of the shooting, and that Kassick had only a hypodermic needle at the time.

Mearkle was released Tuesday on $250,000 bail and will return to court April 7, records show. She has been suspended by the Police Department, according to Perry.

Kassick's death is the latest in a series of fatal police shootings involving suspects without lethal weapons, if any, that have led many to question the use of deadly force by law enforcement agencies around the country. Recent police shootings in Wisconsin, Georgia and Washington state have drawn the ire of civil rights advocates, though the Hummelstown incident lacks the racial component that has played a key role in many of the other cases. Mearkle is white, as was Kassick. 

Perry said Mearkle, 36, has served as a police officer for 14 years in Hummelstown, a town of 4,300 between Harrisburg, the state capital, and Hershey. There are fewer than 20 officers in the department, according to Perry.

Mearkle is married with one daughter.

"She has no history of excessive use-of-force complaints and she is a well-known and well-respected officer," Perry said. "The amount of texts and emails that I’ve received today is overwhelming in support of her."

The fact that Perry was holding her service weapon and stun gun at the same time drew concern from law enforcement experts. Rick Wyant, a Washington-based forensic scientist who has testified in more than 100 use-of-force cases, told the Los Angeles Times he had seen a number of cases in which officers mistakenly fired a service weapon because they had taken aim at the same time with a less lethal weapon, such as stun gun.

It happens in the heat of the moment. The escalation of force is rapid, meaning you’re trying to use your Taser, and it’s not effective, and you transition to your sidearm," Wyant said. "It’s an adrenaline sort of thing … and occasionally the firearm is discharged instead of the Taser."

But the fact that Kassick was on the ground and unarmed with anything other than the needle could make it difficult for the officer to reasonably claim self-defense.

“Failing to comply with commands is usually not an affirmative defense for lethal force, obviously," he said. "It is not training to have one [weapon] in each hand, but that is sometimes the case when a dynamic situation is involved."

Kassick, 59, had a history of motor vehicle offenses, including careless driving and driving with a suspended license, according to Pennsylvania court records. 

He grew up in West Hazleton, Pa., and his personal Facebook page is filled with pictures of the tall, long-haired man smiling while riding motorcycles. The page has now turned into something of an informal memorial to him, as friends have continued to leave messages of support for the family.

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