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Pennsylvania Teen Had Hands Up Before Being Killed by State Police, New Video Shows

This article was produced in partnership with NBC News.

By Fred Adams for Spotlight PA / NBC News

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.

STROUDSBURG, Pa. — A Chinese American teenager who was fatally shot by Pennsylvania State Police last year had his hands in the air when troopers opened fire, new videos reveal, prompting calls for an independent investigation.

The videos, recorded by the State Police, show the final moments of Christian Hall’s life on the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2020.

Hall, 19, who had been diagnosed with depression, was standing on the ledge of a highway overpass near Stroudsburg, in northeastern Pennsylvania, when troopers arrived. They tried to persuade him to get down, but when they saw he had a gun — later determined to be a realistic pellet gun — they backed away.

Video previously released by the Monroe County district attorney shows Hall raising his hands in the air, with the gun in one hand, after a trooper fired bullets that struck the bridge.

But the final seconds before he was killed were blurred by authorities.

The full version of the videos — obtained by Spotlight PA and NBC News from Hall’s parents, whose lawyer received them through a subpoena — shows that Hall kept his hands above his head for 14 seconds in all. The videos show that Hall’s hands were still in the air, the gun in one hand, as two troopers fired another series of shots and he crumpled to the ground.

State Police troopers from outside the local barracks investigated the killing and turned the findings over to the Monroe County district attorney, who ruled it justified, saying the lives of the troopers on scene were in danger.

Michael Mancuso, an assistant district attorney, called Hall’s death a “classic suicide by cop scenario” at a news conference in March.

The fatal shooting drew protests from activists who questioned why State Police had opened fire on a teenager who appeared to be suicidal and needed help. Protesters also raised concerns about whether Monroe County District Attorney E. David Christine Jr. could make an unbiased call given that his office regularly works with troopers to build cases.

Hall’s parents have begun the process of suing the two troopers who shot their son (the troopers’ names have not been released). They said they released the full videos because they believe Hall’s death merits more scrutiny, and they hope to spark fresh calls for an independent review.

“I would like to see an unbiased investigation take place,” said Gareth Hall, Christian’s father. “I personally would like to see those police officers brought up on charges.”

Ben Crump and Devon M. Jacob, the lawyers for George Floyd’s family, who are now representing Hall’s parents, said the troopers should not have shot Hall.

“Everybody knows when you put your hands in the air that’s the universal sign of surrender,” Crump said. “Why use the most excessive force?”

In October, Crump and Jacob sent letters to the U.S. Justice Department, FBI and Pennsylvania’s attorney general asking for a new investigation into Hall’s shooting and the response to it by the State Police and Christine’s office. The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said it does not have jurisdiction because the local district attorney has not referred the case to it.

The letters accuse Christine’s office of falsely implying that Hall threatened troopers with the gun in the final moments before he was shot, while the full videos show that the gun remained above Hall’s head. The district attorney’s narrative and the blurred video lead “the viewer to believe that in the redacted portion of the video, Christian pointed the weapon at troopers and advanced on troopers; thereby justifying the use of deadly force,” the letters state.

In response to questions and an interview request, Christine’s office released a statement saying it stood by its finding that the shooting was justified.

Col. Robert Evanchick, the State Police commissioner, declined a request to be interviewed. The department could not comment because of pending litigation, a spokesperson said.

Three use-of-force experts who reviewed the videos for Spotlight PA and NBC News were divided on whether the troopers were right to shoot, but all said independent reviews are superior because they increase public faith in the process.

Karlin Chan, a community activist who focuses on anti-Asian hate in New York City and helped organize a rally there two months after Hall’s death, believes the case deserves more attention.

He has been in touch with Hall’s family and watched the district attorney’s March news conference on Hall’s death. He believes Hall was inaccurately painted as a criminal not deserving of sympathy.

“We can’t let this go,” he said. “We’re basically after accountability. We’re after the truth.”

Hall’s childhood

Gareth Hall, who is Black and Latino, and Fe Hall, who is Filipino, adopted Hall from China in 2002, when he was a baby. They moved from New York City to the Poconos hoping to give him an idyllic childhood in an environment they thought would be safer.

As a child, Hall was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a serious condition sometimes found in adopted children that makes it difficult for them to connect with their parents and interact with others. The disorder can be a result of not having basic needs met as early as infancy. Treatments include counseling for children and education for their parents, but experts say more research needs to be done.

Hall often ran away from home, though Gareth Hall said the family could always find him by the end of the day.

At age 10, his parents said, he accidentally started a fire while playing with matches, damaging an empty room in a nursing home. No one was injured, but he spent the next four years in juvenile detention.

After he was released, at 14, he ran away, violating his probation. Hall was sent back to the state’s custody. His parents said that he was never charged with another crime but that he cycled in and out of juvenile incarceration after continually running away from home.

Hall was released from juvenile detention in 2020 and was living with his parents when he went with them on Dec. 29 to visit his aunt on her birthday. On the way home, Hall started talking about his former girlfriend, Gareth Hall said. Another man had apparently threatened to kill himself over her.

Hall’s father was immediately concerned.

“Do I believe Christian was suicidal? No. But I believe he planned on putting on a good show,” Gareth Hall said. “He was going to show her that he was going to go beyond what that guy was going to do.”

What happened Dec. 30

Christian Hall was supposed to be working at a grocery store when he called 911 about a “possible suicider” at about 1:30 p.m. Dec. 30. Before that, he had posted on Snapchat a picture of the overpass with the text “who would miss me,” according to a report released by the DA’s Office.

When State Police troopers arrived, they found Hall on a concrete ledge looking down on I-80, the wind whipping around him.

Troopers blocked off the overpass and asked Hall to talk to them.

One of the troopers on scene had been a crisis negotiator for 15 years; another had been a crisis intervention specialist and had a master’s degree in counseling and clinical health psychology. The highest-ranking trooper was a corporal with more than 20 years of experience.

Video from the State Police shows the troopers trying to coax Hall from the ledge until they see he has a gun in his hand. The troopers backed away but tried to persuade him to leave the gun on the bridge and walk to them.

At one point, Hall put the gun down and smoked marijuana. The troopers talked to him for about 90 minutes.

“Come on, man. I don’t think you want to stand out here all night, right?” a trooper said on the video. “Put it down for me and walk up here. That’s all you’ve got to do.”

In the final 22 seconds before Hall was shot, he shuffled toward the troopers with the pellet gun in one hand, arms at his sides. Huddled behind their vehicles about 70 feet away, troopers again told him to drop the gun.

The video shows Hall raising his hands after a corporal fired the initial shots, which missed him. Hall first raised his hands to his sides, then above his head, holding the gun in one hand, the video shows.

“If he doesn’t drop it just take him,” a voice can be heard saying on the video.

Hall’s hands stayed above his head as the corporal and another trooper fired several more shots. Hall was struck, clutched his stomach, and fell to the ground.

While the video does not appear to show Hall pointing the gun directly at troopers before he was shot, the accounts by State Police and the DA’s Office are inconsistent on this point.

The State Police’s initial news release and one of several accounts in the district attorney’s written report state that Hall pointed the gun at troopers before shots were fired. A trooper said he watched Hall “bless himself, point to his head and then pull the gun from his waistband and point it in the direction of the Troopers.” The corporal then fired the first three shots, which appeared to miss Hall, according to that account.

Another section of the report and a video released by the DA examining the shooting make no mention of Hall pointing directly at troopers or raising the gun before the first shots were fired. After the initial shots, Hall “raises the gun outward toward his side and then upwards by bending his elbow at a ninety degree angle,” that section of the report states

At the March news conference, Mancuso, the assistant district attorney, said Hall was an imminent threat from the moment he put his hand on the gun.

“Frankly, it’s a testament to the troopers that they didn’t shoot sooner,” Mancuso said.

Later he imitated Hall pulling the gun out of his waistband and raising it in the air, and said Hall “played with it in this way and at some point kind of moved the muzzle over in the direction of the troopers then raised it upward.”

Maria Haberfeld, who trains police as a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, viewed the unredacted video and believes Hall could have lowered his arm and fired quicker than the troopers’ reaction time.

“The moment he is facing and approaching the police officers, moving toward the police officers with a gun in his hand, I don’t see how it’s not a justified shooting,” she said.

When someone is trying to get the police to kill them, they may be willing to hurt or kill to achieve their goal, she said.

David Rudovsky, a longtime use-of-force expert and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, also watched the video but saw it differently.

“I think there’s some serious questions as to justification,” Rudovsky said. “He would have had a difficult time shooting at them from where he was.”

Still, it’s unlikely a court would find the troopers violated state law, said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a police accountability expert who reviewed the video.

“The question is, what do you do as a state, as a society, when you have a shooting that may be lawful, but looks awful?” he said.

Even though Hall was armed, he was not acting aggressively, pointing the weapon at troopers, or “advancing in a way that indicates an attack,” Harris said.

And there’s more to what happened, Harris said, than whether police were legally justified in pulling the trigger. More than 1 in 5 people fatally shot by police in the United States have mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database, which raises questions about whether officers could be better trained to handle these situations.

“Is there anything else that could have been done to save this person’s life?” Harris asked. “How can we handle problems like this so police aren’t put in this position and so people in mental health crises don’t die?”

A lack of trust

Hall’s parents learned that he had been shot and killed in the late afternoon of Dec. 30, when troopers called them down to the local barracks.

They were distraught — and soon they were facing a barrage of questions from the State Police and the coroner’s office about their son’s final days. But they were in shock and couldn’t talk yet, they said.

At one point a couple of days later, Hall’s parents said, they called the coroner’s office and were upset to learn that Hall’s body wouldn’t be released to them yet, because of the ongoing investigation.

“We have to think about two lives here,” an official at the coroner’s office said, according to Fe and Gareth Hall. “Christian’s and the officer who shot him.”

A spokesperson for the coroner’s office declined to comment.

Hall’s parents last talked to the State Police on New Year’s Day, when Gareth Hall asked for his son’s phone. A trooper told him the department had a right to keep it, he said.

Hall’s parents said they’ve never received any of his belongings and haven’t heard from anyone with the State Police since.

Gareth Hall said they would have cooperated with the investigation and answered questions after those overwhelming initial days.

“I was waiting,” Gareth Hall said. “Not a call.”

At the news conference in March, Mancuso, the assistant district attorney, blamed the lack of communication on Hall’s parents.

“We had no request for information from them,” Mancuso said. “No direct request was made regarding the course of the investigation from them.”

Mancuso briefly talked about Hall’s juvenile record, declining to get into specifics. He said that Hall had frequently carried the airsoft pellet gun and that investigators were told he robbed people with it.

Jacob, one of the Hall family lawyers, saw the news conference as an attempt to prejudice anyone who might be scrutinizing the killing and denied that Hall had robbed anyone.

“None of that was relevant at all,” he said. “None of that was ever investigated. And none of that was proven.”

Fe Hall said she believes her son’s race played into the troopers’ decision to shoot. She and her husband said the pain of losing their son has been compounded by their treatment by State Police and the District Attorney’s Office.

“I feel that Asians are generalized as the quiet ones, they’re not going to fight back,” Fe Hall said. “Is it possible that when they shot Christian they were looking at him as Chinese? He doesn’t matter. His family is not going to say anything. This is just going to go away quietly.”

Hall’s parents believe the district attorney wanted to protect the troopers involved. There was an incentive, they said, to paint their family as uncooperative and Hall as a criminal.

“The DA doesn’t have accountability to anybody,” Fe Hall said

Benefit of the doubt

In Pennsylvania, the state Attorney General’s Office cannot investigate a criminal case unless the local district attorney asks for help — which can occur when local prosecutors lack sufficient resources or there is an “actual or apparent” conflict of interest.

In this case, the Monroe County DA didn’t think there was a conflict of interest. Mancuso said that the office’s resources were more than adequate and that the staff had more experience in such cases than Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office.

Shapiro’s office said that Mancuso’s statement was “blatantly untrue” and that it had investigated 10 other criminal cases referred by the Monroe County DA since 2017.

There’s an inherent conflict of interest when local prosecutors review the actions of local police, said Rudovsky, the University of Pennsylvania Law School senior fellow.

“Everybody recognizes with local police and a local DA, they are working together every day,” he said.

State Sen. Art Haywood, whose district includes part of Philadelphia, wants to change the law to require that an outside law enforcement agency investigate use-of-force cases in Pennsylvania, so families of victims and the public will have more faith in the findings.

His legislation would give the state Attorney General’s Office the power to review those investigations without a referral from the local district attorney if no charges are filed. Under the bill, the governor, key lawmakers, and the attorney general would receive a detailed report about the investigation within seven days of a decision being made not to file charges.

Haywood said he started pushing for the changes after police killed Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and Antwon Rose II outside Pittsburgh in 2018.

So far the legislation hasn’t gotten much traction, but Haywood said he’s optimistic it can get passed in the future.

Hall’s case, and other police shootings of people with mental illness in Pennsylvania, shows why these investigations need to be independent, he said.

Hall’s parents support the change. Fe Hall said she believes her son was badly treated by the juvenile justice system, and she had hoped he would grow up and expose the abuses she believes he suffered.

She said she was uncomfortable with releasing the video of the shooting, but in doing so, she hopes Hall’s death can be the force for change that she wanted his life to be.

“He’s just a memory now,” she said. “But I just want something good to come out of it.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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