Prosecutors say uniformed police at trial could sway jury

Federal prosecutors and an attorney representing a fired Pittsburgh police sergeant accused of punching a drunken man outside a football stadium are sparring over whether other officers should be allowed to wear uniforms while attending the trial.

Defense attorney Tina Miller accused prosecutors late Friday of trying "to hijack" former sergeant Stephen Matakovich's "constitutional right to a fair trial," The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ( ) reported.

Prosecutors had filed a motion Thursday seeking to bar uniforms from the courtroom, saying their presence could intimidate or influence the jury. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Gilson asked the judge to establish a rule that spectators during the trial should not wear "a uniform, badge and/or any other items that would identify them as law enforcement officers to the casual observer."

Miller called it "disingenuous" to suggest excluding uniformed spectators. She held out the possibility that the government could ask witnesses to forgo uniforms while in court or on the witness stand.

Matakovich faces charges of deprivation of civil rights and falsification of a document. He has testified that the man outside the stadium adopted a threatening, aggressive posture outside a high school championship football game at Heinz Field in 2015. Surveillance video, which led to Matakovich's firing, shows the other man with his hands at his sides before the officer suddenly pushes him down and strikes him in the face as he tries to stand.

Pittsburgh police officer Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, sent an email Friday saying he had alerted national and state union leaders to the motion about uniformed officers.

"It is a sign of the times that support for police officers at the highest levels of government service is substantially waning," he said.


Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,