Nearly six months after Easton police officer Jesse Sollman was shot and killed inside police headquarters, the Lehigh County coroner Wednesday ruled his death was a homicide, clearing the way for Sollman's widow to apply for additional death benefits.
The decision by Coroner Scott Grim also put Sollman's family a step closer to suing the city, said John P. Karoly Jr., the Allentown lawyer representing the family.
The ruling does not, however, shed new light on how Sollman was fatally shot March 25 inside the police station with another officer's service handgun.
"All it means is death at the hands of another," Grim said, referring to the legal definition of homicide. The Lehigh County coroner ruled on the death because Sollman was pronounced dead at St. Luke's Hospital in Fountain Hill.
Although Grim did not identify who "another" was, a ranking member of the department, Capt. Michael Gibiser, has said Sollman was "accidentally" shot by Patrolman Matthew Renninger.
A grand jury in Harrisburg, called by the state attorney general, has been investigating the shooting since July. More than a dozen officers, including the chief and his staff, have testified before the panel. More police officers are expected to testify next month when the grand jury reconvenes.
Grim's ruling was not a surprise to investigators, according to Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
"We are aware Sollman died at the hands of another," Harley said. "Obviously we have a very active investigation to determine how he died."
The attorney general will ultimately decide if criminal charges should be filed against Renninger, who has been on paid leave since the shooting.
Renninger's lawyer, Gary Asteak of Easton, said his client wants to tell how Sollman was shot, but he has remained silent because it would be inappropriate to discuss the case during the state's investigation.
Asteak did not attribute much significance to Grim's ruling, describing the use of homicide as a "generic term."
"It doesn't ascribe responsibility, culpability or who was to be blamed," Asteak said.
The delay in the coroner's ruling has prevented Sollman's widow, Carin, from applying for benefits that require a death certificate; without a ruling, a death certificate could not be issued.
Karoly questioned the timing of the coroner's ruling. He said one possibility for the report being completed now is that state investigators want to present it to the grand jury. But, he said, he also hoped the coroner took into consideration Carin Sollman's plight.
"I'm willing to be open-minded as to what took so long," Karoly said. "But it's hard for me to fathom a reasonable response to that question."
Grim said the investigation took as long as it did "because I had to get certain information." He declined to elaborate.
Karoly said the coroner had two options based on the circumstances: Sollman's death was either an accident or a homicide.
"The difference is whether or not he determined that there was a degree of careless and reckless conduct taking it out of the accident category and putting it in the homicide category," Karoly said. "While homicide merely suggests it means death at the hands of another, it doesn't mean criminal homicide -- intentionally, knowingly or negligently causing the death of another."
Sollman's father-in-law, retired Philadelphia police Lt. Charles Hentz, has maintained Renninger should be charged with involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree misdemeanor that involves killing someone in a "reckless or grossly negligent manner."
Hentz declined comment Wednesday, deferring questions to Karoly.
Grim's ruling suggested to Karoly that Hentz is probably right and involuntary manslaughter charges should be filed against the person responsible for firing the weapon, Karoly said.
Sollman, 36, was shot in a gun cleaning room on the second floor of the station about 3:30 p.m. at the end of his shift.
Details on what happened in the room have not been released.
The city Police Department also launched an internal investigation into Sollman's death, but Police Chief Stephen A. Mazzeo said the inquiry was suspended pending the outcome of the state's investigation.
Mazzeo and Mayor Phil Mitman said they had no comment regarding Grim's ruling because they received no supporting documents, only the final ruling.
"We expect to learn more over the next several days," Mazzeo said. "I'd expect we'd be able to read his decision."
Without a coroner's report, Karoly agreed, it's difficult to interpret the coroner's ruling of homicide or understand why it took six months.
Grim declined to release a copy of his coroner's report to The Morning Call on Wednesday.
Karoly said Grim indicated to him the coroner's report would be finished and available to him in about seven days. He said an earlier request for a copy of the autopsy report was denied because it is part of an ongoing investigation.
A lawyer for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association said there's no legal reason preventing Grim from releasing the coroner's report.
"Under the coroner's statute, the coroner is required to make the report publicly available by [Jan. 30]," said attorney Teri Henning. "But nothing prohibits the coroner from releasing it prior to that time. The date is an arbitrary one, and the document itself is a public record. The public shouldn't have to wait until Jan. 30."
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