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July 10, 2024

D.A.'s Office won't seek death penalty against alleged killer of Temple police officer

The family of Sgt. Christopher Fitzgerald, who was shot to death in North Philly last year, says the case should be tried by a special prosecutor.

Investigations Homicides

Temple University Police Sgt. Christopher Fitzgerald was fatally shot in North Philadelphia in February 2023. District Attorney Larry Krasner's office won't pursue the death penalty against Miles Pfeffer, the 19-year-old man charged with killing Fitzgerald.

Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty for the man accused of fatally shooting Temple University police Sgt. Christopher Fitzgerald in North Philadelphia last year, the District Attorney's Office said Wednesday.

Fitzgerald's family, which had pushed for capital punishment to be considered, now wants a special prosecutor to take over the case.

Fitzgerald, 31, was shot while investigating a suspected carjacking at 18th Street and Montgomery Avenue on Feb. 18, 2023. Fitzgerald chased after Miles Pfeffer, 19, and wound up in a struggle with him, investigators said. Pfeffer allegedly shot Fitzgerald with a handgun and then fired multiple rounds at the officer's head as he lay on the ground.

Pfeffer also allegedly tried – but failed – to take Fitzgerald's gun from his holster, and later carjacked a vehicle to flee the scene. Pfeffer was arrested the next morning in Buckingham Township, Bucks County. He is charged with murder and related offenses.

The Fitzgerald family was informed after a hearing Tuesday that District Attorney Larry Krasner will not pursue the death penalty.

"This decision was made after extensive input over many hours from the family of Officer Fitzgerald, and from experts," Dustin Slaughter, a spokesperson for the D.A.'s office, said Wednesday.

Krasner received input from a committee of attorneys who review matters related to the death penalty before making the final determination, the D.A.'s office said.

Although the death penalty is legal in Pennsylvania, the state has had a moratorium on capital punishment since 2015. An execution hasn't been carried out since 1999.

Gov. Josh Shapiro extended the moratorium two days before Fitzgerald was killed. Shapiro previously had supported the use of capital punishment for heinous crimes, but said he would not issue any execution warrants and that he wanted Pennsylvania to join 25 other states that have abolished the death penalty.

The Fitzgerald family previously had asked Krasner to pursue the death penalty even if the moratorium would prevent an execution. The family said seeking the death penalty sends an important message to violent criminals. 

"The issue here is not enough people in the city understand the dynamics of what goes into charging, what goes into leveling a death penalty consideration," Joel Fitzgerald, the slain officer's father and former Allentown police chief, said Wednesday during a Zoom call with reporters. "Really, it's consideration of the death penalty. The jury or judge make the decision in the end of the case to say whether that person deserves it or not. Larry Krasner shouldn't make that decision before it hits a courtroom." 

The D.A.'s Office said it plans on "vigorously prosecuting this terrible murder" and will support the Fitzgerald family moving forward.

For months, the Fitzgerald family has been critical of the handling of the case and the amount of time it has taken to go to trial. Fitzgerald's mother, Pauline, a retired homicide detective, said the family was "strung along" for months without input from Krasner's office about its decision on the death penalty. She said the family requested a meeting with Krasner to understand his reasoning.

"(Krasner) strictly said 'no' for no apparent reason," Pauline Fitzgerald said.

Joel Fitzgerald said the state's moratorium should not prevent prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty and giving the judicial system the opportunity to make a decision. 

"It is on the books in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a reason and that is because people support it," he said.

Fitzgerald also claimed Krasner, who campaigned against the death penalty and praised Shapiro's shift in policy, is biased against capital punishment and allowed his history as a defense attorney to shape his decision.

"He's unable to divorce himself from his prejudice against law enforcement in general," he said.

Marissa Fitzgerald, the slain officer's wife, earlier this year described Pfeffer as "an evil human being" with "no regard for life."

"We watched videos of my husband getting executed, and it's like it didn't phase (Krasner) at all," she said Wednesday. "How can you think that this doesn't deserve the death penalty? I just don't understand it."

The Fitzgerald family wants the case to be turned over to special prosecutor Michael Untermeyer, who was appointed last month by Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry. Untermayer's role was created by Act 40, a new state law that carves out a separate prosecutor for crimes that occur on or near SEPTA facilities.

Krasner, who filed a complaint challenging the law, argued that it was unconstitutional and undermined his democratically elected duties in the city. A state court ruled against Krasner's lawsuit last month.

The A.G.'s office hasn't spelled out how Act 40 will be applied in Philadelphia and which cases will be handled by the special prosecutor. Some have interpreted the law to state that cases in Untermeyer's jurisdiction could include those that occur within 500 feet of a SEPTA facility, a broad definition that encompasses much of the city. The A.G.'s office has maintained that this distance was included in a separate statute unrelated to SEPTA crimes or the special prosecutor. The Fitzgerald family said the officer's shooting happened within 500 feet of a SEPTA bus stop.

"They can come in and adopt this case," Joel Fitzgerald said.

The A.G.'s office declined to comment about the case and Krasner's decision not to pursue the death penalty. The office's criminal division generally receives case referrals from district attorneys in the state if they lack the resources to prosecute them or if the D.A. cites a conflict of interest. 

Court records show a status hearing for Pfeffer is scheduled for July 31. 

"We're hoping that the Fitzgerald case and Christopher's horrible death becomes a moment of change, which is what we always wanted," said Joseph Marrone, the family's attorney.

Marissa Fitzgerald said her husband's death is a nightmare that haunts her and her children every day.

"It is a pit in my stomach. It's literally a knot, a punch in the gut every single day," she said. "It is sad that it has taken this long for his case to move, and he didn't deserve any of this."