A white former Philadelphia police officer was charged Friday with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a Black man after a high-speed car chase nearly three years ago.
Former Officer Eric Ruch Jr. shot and killed Dennis Plowden Jr., 25, only seconds after Plowden crashed his car at 77 mph (125 kph), stumbled out of it and fell to the ground, authorities said.
Plowden, dazed and unarmed, was holding his empty left hand in front of his face when Ruch fired the fatal shot, prosecutors said. Four other officers who were on the scene and had taken cover did not fire their weapons, according to a grand jury presentment.
The grand jury said Ruch shot Plowden in the head without justification as Plowden looked “dazed and lost on the sidewalk."
“Ruch intentionally fired on Dennis Plowden less than 20 seconds after the Hyundai he had been driving crashed at nearly 80 miles an hour, Mr. Plowden had fallen to the ground, and yet was still attempting to obey commands," the grand jury wrote.
Ruch, who was fired about 10 months after the shooting, turned himself in Friday to face charges of first-degree murder, third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and possession of an instrument of crime. Prosecutors expected him to be held without bail.
The police union said its lawyers will defend the former officer.
“We will represent former police officer Eric Ruch Jr. against these serious charges. Our attorneys will review the allegations and appropriately defend this officer,” said John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. “Officer Ruch Jr. is entitled to due process, and we believe the judicial system will protect his rights to a fair trial.”
Paul Hetznecker, who represents Plowden’s wife, Tania Bond, called the charges “long overdue” and “an important step in the struggle for racial and social justice in this city.” Bond is suing Ruch, three other officers and the city.
It remained unclear why police sought to stop Plowden's car in the first place. According to the grand jury, Ruch and his partner began following Plowden and asked police dispatch to check the registration of his car.
Ruch's partner told investigators after the shooting that they had stopped Plowden's Hyundai because of a patrol alert that connected it to a homicide, according to the grand jury.
But other officers said they were unaware of the patrol alert — which had not been broadcast over police radio — and all the information sought by Ruch from police dispatch was already contained in the alert, the grand jury said.
“There’s no information on the police radio before the incident that indicates that anyone knew for sure that this vehicle may have been involved in a homicide,” Assistant District Attorney Vincent Corrigan said at a news conference Friday. That homicide investigation remains open, he said, but the Hyundai is no longer an “avenue of inquiry."
The grand jury said three of the four officers present for the shooting testified they did not see Plowden raise his left hand, while the fourth said he didn't recall what Plowden was doing with it.
Other eyewitnesses said Plowden was on his back and struggling to sit up when he was shot, with one saying Plowden was gesturing with his left hand in front of his face.
The lawsuit filed by Plowden's wife said he was propping himself up with his right arm while holding out his left hand in a vain attempt to prevent Ruch from shooting him. A medical examiner said the bullet tore through the fingers of Plowden’s left hand before hitting him in the head, indicating the hand was raised, according to the grand jury.
Officers also said they saw Plowden's right hand in his pocket, with one saying “it looked like he had a gun in there,” the grand jury said. The other eyewitnesses did not mention Plowden's right hand.
Ruch fired the fatal shot just 6 to 8 seconds after getting to the crash scene, the grand jury said.
Hetznecker, the lawyer for Plowden's wife, said that police had no probable cause to stop the car, and that officers' statements were an attempt to justify the fatal shooting.
“I'm glad to see the grand jurors saw through that,” he said.
Plowden was taking classes to get his high school diploma and was learning the construction trade at the time of his killing. He left behind two children and three stepchildren, including an infant son who is now 3.
“I am happy that Ruch was charged with the murder of Dennis,” Plowden’s wife, Tania Bond, said Friday in a phone interview, but “this is only the beginning. There are so many more milestones before we reach the end.”
She said she wants to know “whether Ruch has any remorse and anything to say to us. I just want to know, has Ruch ever thought about my family?”