Matthew TothLebanon Daily News
The NAACP has filed an ethics complaint with the state against the Lebanon County district attorney regarding her investigation of a 2020 shooting in which state troopers killed a woman in the line of duty.
The complaint contends that District Attorney Pier Hess Graf repeatedly violated the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, saying she “has failed to fulfill her duty to serve as an impartial and independent enforcer of the law when it comes to holding the police force accountable.”
Troopers Jay Splain and Mathew Haber were among police who pursued Charity Thome for 10 miles on March 16, 2020. At the end of the chase, in Jackson Township, police said, she rammed her car into an officer’s cruiser. That’s when they opened fire.
A Philadelphia law firm has filed a civil lawsuit contending the shooting was not justified.
“Lebanon County residents, especially those living with mental health issues and struggling with addiction, have a right to public service that is fair, impartial, aligned with departmental protocol, and, most importantly, non-lethal,” Tony Fields, president of the NAACP chapter, said in the release.
The disciplinary board reviews complaints against attorneys and can take several actions, which include disbarment, suspension and public reprimand.
In an email to the Lebanon Daily News, Graf called the complaint “meritless.”
“Our Office conducted a thorough and complete investigation into the Officer Involved Shooting of Charity Thome,” she said. “We issued a statement at the conclusion of the investigation with our findings and determinations; I stand behind the investigation and statement as I always have.”
NAACP members also mentioned in their complaint that Graf is married to Cpl. Christopher Graf who was based in the same Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Jonestown as Troopers Splain and Huber.
“District Attorney Graf’s husband’s relationship with these officers created a clear conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety and violation of rule 2.11 (“disqualification”),” Fields wrote in the complaint letter. “She could have, and should have, recused herself and turned the investigation over to the State Attorney General’s office, but she refused to do so.”
The complaint adds that Graf founded and hosts an annual “Back the Blue” fundraiser to benefit PACOPS, a police non-profit, while serving as district attorney. The NAACP said this violates rules “governing extrajudicial activities and participation in civic and charitable activities.”
Graf said that some news outlets and people have lodged baseless allegations toward her ability to act as Lebanon County’s District Attorney since she took office in 2020.
“In every aspect of my career, I endeavor to serve this community and protect its citizens from the vile and evil criminals who would otherwise prey upon them,” she said. “Three years ago, I married a wonderful and honorable man. The addition of ‘MRS’ to my name fails to change or alter my abilities as a prosecutor. I respect my fellow elected District Attorneys, the overwhelming majority of whom are men. I’ve never witnessed the level of attention or coverage to a single one of their spouses as I have mine. It’s 2022 and time to look to my career as a prosecutor rather than make baseless allegations due to my gender.”
he NAACP states that the complaint focuses on “a clear conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety” in the discharge of District Attorney Graf’s professional responsibilities.
“It is our hope that opening a complaint regarding the systems and processes related to investigating lethal use of force will help to build a stronger, safer community,” Lori Burrus, NAACP Executive Committee member and representative on the Lebanon County Criminal Justice Advisory Board said. “I am concerned for public safety, but also for the impact on job performance and mental health outcomes for the officers involved in these incidents.”
Separate from the Thome case, Splain also shot and killed Andy Dzwonchyk, 40, in Jonestown in November 2021. The Pennsylvania State Police Troop L Major Case Team and the Lebanon County District Attorney’s office are still investigating.
Splain shot Dzwonchyk as he and another trooper tried to take Dzwonchyk into custody in November 2021. The troopers had been dispatched to Union Township on a protection-from-abuse violation against Dzwonchyk, when he turned up in his vehicle.
A struggle ensued between Dzwonchyk and troopers while he was in the driver’s seat, according to officials. State Police Public Information officer David Boehm said Dzwonchyk drove forward and in reverse while one trooper was partially in the vehicle, causing the trooper to be dragged.
“My Office’s investigation into the Officer Involved Shooting of Andrew Dzwonchyk is ongoing,” Graf said to the Lebanon Daily News. “My Detective Bureau operates independently of the State Police and I stand behind the caliber of each man. We cannot comment on an active investigation. At its conclusion, we will issue a statement with our findings and determinations.”
A New York Times report in December shows that Splain has shot and killed four people in his time as a police officer.
Matthew Toth is a reporter for the Lebanon Daily News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DAMattToth.