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Tony Norman: Just a few more questions about the Peter Spencer case...

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3/17/2022 By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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You don’t have to believe Peter Bernardo Spencer was an angel to question the Venango County DA’s report that his Dec. 12 shooting by an unnamed assailant was a case of justifiable self-defense.

More than a quarter of a year after state police found the Jamaican-American dead outside a cabin in Rockland Township, his killer, though known, has yet to be publicly identified or charged.

Spencer’s killer and three witnesses gave authorities an explanation for why a dead Black man from Pittsburgh was face down on the lawn. It was a strange narrative that wasn’t shared with the public for three months.

The official report puts the onus for the homicide on the dead guy. In a nutshell, the killer, a former work buddy invited Spencer to the cabin to hunt and hangout in front of a fire pit on a cold night.

Spencer was dropped off at the remote rural location by his pregnant fiancee. He was having such a good time with his friend and three others, new to him, that he told his fiancee that he was staying overnight and to pick him up in the morning.

It didn’t take long for weed and psychedelic mushrooms to make the rounds as the group sat around a fire. According to the report, Spencer repeatedly fired an AK-47 he brought to the site. There was also an AR-15 and a 9mm on the premises, and drugs in the cabin.

Spencer’s eventual killer and his three friends told the cops that Spencer made pronouncements about being “a god” and “the creator, master and manipulator of his own reality” as he was shooting into the sky. They said that he periodically threatened them by aiming in their direction.

Because Spencer’s actions were so “threatening” to an unidentified couple, the 25-year-old man who invited Spencer to the cabin grabbed his 9mm Glock and shot his guest nine times; the entrance and exit wounds — including several in the back — were caused by the spins a body makes when it is being shot full of holes, according to the report.

The shooter and the three witnesses told authorities stories that allegedly matched forensics and each other, when collected separately. The shooter killed Spencer according to the low standards laid out in the Castle Doctrine, so there were no grounds to charge him anyway.

The killer said he felt threatened on his own behalf and on behalf of others. He was in fear of grievous bodily harm and grabbed his weapon to defend himself. He was under no obligation to retreat.

There was no contrary narrative giving Spencer’s version because, well, he was dead. The state police took statements and released the shooter and the witnesses several hours later. The Pennsylvania State Police Heritage Affairs Section said that despite the racial dynamic of a white shooter, white witnesses and a Black victim, there was no evidence of racial bias.

This week, the Venango County DA’s office said there was nothing nefarious about what happened that night, except the unfair headlines and social media speculation about the integrity of the investigation sparked by the information void left by three months of official silence about the case.

District Attorney Shawn White seemed to take umbrage over the coverage of the investigation. “It has consumed almost every waking moment that we’ve had for the last 90 days,” he whined before blaming “policies” for his inability to share even basic information during those days.

The shooter who was effectively exonerated the night of the killing, without benefit of a trial or cross-examination, is still officially unidentified. Why is that? Whether charged with a crime or not, doesn’t society have a right to know the name of the person who took another civilian’s life?

None of the people who partied with Peter Spencer the night of Dec. 12 have been identified or charged with anything. Is it logical to assume that all the drugs and guns scattered on the premises belonged to Spencer who is, conveniently, dead?

It could be that the facts as presented at the news conference are true, but three months of silence and a continuing mystery about those involved is guaranteed to generate cynicism and distrust.

We have no idea who the primary characters are in this drama. Is the killer friendly with or related to someone in high office or law enforcement? Is the killer an undercover cop or someone in the federal witness protection program?

Witness testimonies tend to be self-serving. That’s why it’s important that every narrative is probed by interested parties on all sides. It could be the Venango County DA’s office is operating with huge blind spots compounded by inexperience or even bias because of the identity of the victim.

Every murder suspect strives to make a narrative as exculpatory as possible. The result is usually a story too neat and too carefully constructed in ways that real life rarely unfolds. And remember: The killer and the witnesses had three months to get their stories straight.

There are lots of counter narratives out there that are just as likely as the one Venango County officials have chosen to believe. What if the shooter was the belligerent one and Spencer tried to stop him? What if the witnesses were frightened into going along with the official narrative because they’re afraid of reprisals?

What if the confessed shooter’s anonymity is necessary because of ongoing federal investigations that require his cooperation? Satisfactory answers to these questions hinge on the identities of all involved. The public is not obliged to believe the official story if it doesn’t make any sense because of a lack of crucial data.

The absence of skepticism rarely lends itself to justice just as the absence of transparency rarely results in justice. The fog of suspicion is so thick around this case, it’s long past time for the Justice Department to take a look.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631 or Twitter @Tony_NormanPG.

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