A former Philadelphia police officer was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter Tuesday in what has been described as the first murder trial in Philadelphia's history for a civilian's death at the hands of a police officer.
Eric Ruch Jr. was found not guilty of another charge, third-degree murder, by the jury in a trial that lasted eight days in Common Pleas Court in Center City. Ruch was also convicted of possession of an instrument of crime. His bail was revoked and he will be sentenced Nov. 17.
In 2020, a Philly grand jury recommended four criminal charges, including first-degree murder, for Ruch Jr., who is the officer alleged to have shot and killed Dennis Plowden, an unarmed Black man. The first-degree charge was later thrown out.
Ruch Jr., now 34, was fired months after the Dec. 27, 2017, shooting. According to details released following the grand jury investigation, Plowden, 25, was dazed, sitting on the ground and raising his left hand when Ruch fired his service weapon at Plowden's head.
Get Philly local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Philadelphia newsletters.
Plowden died the next day at a hospital. Ruch has been free on $500,000 bail since 2020. Opening arguments and the first witnesses opened the trial Tuesday. The trial is expected to take seven to 10 days.
It was a drama filled morning, and at times contentious, with Judge Barbara McDermott chastising the prosecution for not submitting at least two exhibits for her review before the trial got underway. The first was a PowerPoint presentation featuring photos and a report from the medical examiner’s office. The second was a videotaped interview with a witness who lived near the scene where the crash and shooting happened. At one point, McDermott told the prosecution this is “not the trial level competency I’m used to.”
One of the first witnesses to take the stand was in his home on Nedro Avenue the night of the shooting. While giving testimony, he was at times combative with the prosecution, defense and even the judge. He said he was in his home when he “heard the horror” and went to the window and saw the commotion.
He testified that he yelled to officers not to shoot, then said, "I’m crying, screaming at the top of my (expletive) lungs, ‘Don’t shoot him!’" He also said he heard the fatal shot.
Later, during cross-examination, defense attorney David Mischak pointed out that the witness told detectives “I’m not saying the officer was wrong” and “I didn’t think the cop was wrong. I just wish he shot him somewhere else.” The witness acknowledged to he made those comments to Mischak.
Ruch was first charged in Oct. 2020 after the grand jury investigation.
"According to this presentment, Eric Ruch killed Dennis Plowden while on duty, by firing his gun directly at Plowden’s head as Plowden sat on the ground with his left empty hand raised and clearly visible," District Attorney Larry Krasner said at the time.
"I mention that because the bullet tore through the fingers of that left hand before it entered Plowden’s head."
The shooting occurred at 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 27, 2017. Plowden was driving a 2013 Hyundai - which was registered to someone else - on Ogontz Avenue in Germantown, with a 27-year-old woman in the passenger seat.
Ruch was in an unmarked police vehicle and spotted the Hyundai.
In 2017 and 2018, police told news outlets that Ruch believed the vehicle was connected to a homicide case. But Assistant District Attorney Vincent Corrigan characterized the officer's frame of mind differently in 2020.
“They called the number into police radio to stop a ‘mover,’ which is police slang for any moving vehicle. 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," Corrigan said. "It’s my understanding since [then], that this is not an avenue of inquiry. The homicide in question is still an open case.”
After seeing the Hyundai, Ruch radioed in for backup and pursued it. Krasner said the time between that radio call and the fatal shooting of Plowden is about two minutes and 19 seconds.
An unmarked police vehicle pulled Plowden over and parked behind him, and a second unmarked cop car pulled over in front of Plowden to cut him off. But Plowden pulled away, striking the open door of the second unmarked car.
"The two unmarked cars along with two marked police vehicles pursued Plowden at high speed until he struck three parked cars, spun around, and finally stopped after striking a pole," Krasner read from the grand jury presentment.
That crash scene was "loud and chaotic" with multiple car alarms going off and officers shouting commands like "don't move" and "show your hands."
Plowden had just stumbled out of the Hyundai.
"According to evidence presented to a grand jury, Plowden looked dazed and lost on the sidewalk," Krasner said. "He had just stumbled from his car following a high-speed crash and appeared to be trying to obey police commands given by police officers at the scene at that time."
Krasner said Ruch shot Plowden within six to eight seconds of arriving at the scene.
Dennis Plowden Murder
Krasner was asked in 2020 why the charges took close to three years after the incident. His assistant district attorney, Corrigan, said that there was a 12-month investigation. Delays due to the coronavirus pandemic the past several months only added to that, they said at the time.
"If we think about a case like the George Floyd case, that is a case where you have a video that captures a lot. A lot of what happened and exactly how it happened. And what we find in general in cases where police accountability is at issue, is where we have video evidence or very strong evidence, we can move more swiftly," Krasner said. "Because you don't have to piece together from eyewitness testimony and other sorts of less perfect sources of information. So it is more time consuming always when you have to look at a case where we do not have video that was focused on the crucial moment in the case."
Ruch is also charged with voluntary manslaughter and possession of an instrument of crime. Former Police Commissioner Richard Ross said Ruch went "too far" in killing Plowden and that the officer used "poor tactics." Ross then fired Ruch.
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, says the union's attorneys will represent Ruch Jr.
"Our attorneys will review the allegations and appropriately defend this officer," McNesby said in 2020. "Officer Ruch Jr. is entitled to due process and we believe the judicial system will protect his rights to a fair trial."