Inquest examines fatal shooting of scissor-wielding man in East Huntingdon store — (Tribune-Review)

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By Rich Cholodofsky Staff Reporter Tribune-Review

Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 12:07 a.m.

State Trooper Chad Cope testified on Tuesday that he feared for his life when he fired up to four shots to ward off an attack from a scissors-wielding man at an East Huntingdon grocery store in January.

But after an inquest convened by Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha into the fatal shooting, the attorney for the dead man’s family said Cope’s actions were not justified.

The hearing officer, attorney Jon Greiner, heard about three hours of testimony and watched silent video from six cameras that captured the fatal encounter between Cope and Seth W. O’Donnell, 26, on Jan. 4 at the Save-A-Lot store in Cross Roads Plaza, south of Mt. Pleasant.

“I thought I was going to die. He swung at me, and I thought that if I got stuck with those scissors I could die,” Cope testified.

Cope said he fired as O’Donnell brandished the scissors, which had two serrated edges. Photographs taken later of Cope show cuts on the sides of his head and a puncture wound on the back of his head.

Video from store cameras and from Cope’s cruiser showed O’Donnell outside the store when police arrived. Cope, with a stun gun drawn, pursued O’Donnell back into the store, where the two tussled near the front door.

As the two rolled on the floor, Cope appeared to fire his Taser and then his service revolver skidded across the floor. As Cope retrieved his gun, O’Donnell fled to the rear of the store.

The video showed the two engage again near the front door before Cope pointed his gun at O’Donnell. That’s when the front glass window shattered, and the pair left through the front door with Cope’s gun pointed at O’Donnell’s midsection.

Store video revealed O’Donnell as he fled through the parking lot with Cope in pursuit and appearing to fire at least one shot toward O’Donnell’s back.

O’Donnell dropped to the ground several feet away. According to an autopsy report, O’Donnell suffered two wounds, one fatal shot to his heart and another to his side. Two rounds were unaccounted for, Trooper Brian Kendgia said.

Store workers testified Cope threatened O’Donnell during the confrontation.

“I heard the officer tell him to stay down or ‘I’m going to kill you,’ ” said produce manager William Metts, who testified he watched the confrontation.

O’Donnell had substantial amounts of antidepressants, cough medicine and synthetic codeine in his system, according to toxicology reports introduced into evidence by District Attorney John Peck.

Cope and other officers testified that police had three previous encounters with O’Donnell the day before at a nearby Wal-Mart store.

Witnesses testified Tuesday that O’Donnell was swinging scissors at that same store, just minutes before he entered the nearby Save-A-Lot store.

Attorney Noah Geary, who was hired by the O’Donnell family, said a civil lawsuit against the police is being contemplated.

The shooting “was not justified,” Geary said. “I think excessive force was employed, and the family of the victim has an excessive force case against the state police if they choose.”

Geary said Cope exacerbated the situation when he followed O’Donnell into the store with his Taser drawn.

“He claimed he was acting out of fear. I think he was acting out of anger. I think this is highly questionable,” Geary said.

Cope, who was initially placed on administrative duty after the shooting, has returned to active patrol duty, state police spokesman Steven Limani said last week.

Greiner said he will prepare an advisory report for Bacha, who will decide whether to recommend to Peck if charges should be filed against Cope.

That report could take several weeks to prepare, Greiner said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293