The Lebanon County branch of the NAACP announced on Feb. 4 that it has filed an ethics complaint against Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf over her investigation of two fatal shootings by Pennsylvania State Police troopers.
The complaint has been filed with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which handles complaints by clients and the public against attorneys.
DA Hess Graf investigated the fatal shootings of Charity Thome and Andrew Dzwonchyk, both of which involved Trooper Jay Splain. She cleared Splain and a second trooper of any wrongdoing in the Thome shooting, but has not announced any conclusions in the Dzwonchyk investigation.
Splain is stationed at PSP’s Jonestown barracks. So is Hess Graf’s husband, PSP Cpl. Christopher M. Graf.
The NAACP alleges that the DA’s marriage to a state trooper in the same barracks as a trooper she is investigating creates a conflict of interest that prevents her from performing independent and objective investigations. In cases of conflict of interest, District Attorneys are able to refer matters to the Pennsylvania Attorney General.
All Pennsylvania attorneys, including prosecutors, are required to follow the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, which include specific provisions for prosecutors, including that “a prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.” The state Supreme Court has held that a prosecutor must exercise independent judgement in prosecuting a case, be “disinterested and impartial,” and that “even in the absence of an actual conflict [of interest]” … the DA’s continued participation can create “the appearance of unfairness and undermines confidence in the proceedings.”
Additionally, Pennsylvania law makes district attorneys subject to the same ethical rules as county judges in regard to conflicts of interest. Those rules require prosecutors to avoid the appearance of impropriety in performing their duties, even if an actual conflict may not exist.
The NAACP complaint also alleges that Hess Graf violated other ethical rules by organizing and hosting fundraisers “for causes that are explicitly pro-police,” undermining “her independence and impartiality regarding investigations of the PA State Police.”
Hess Graf investigated the Mar. 16, 2020, fatal shooting of Thome by Splain and a second state trooper after an early-morning vehicle chase through Lebanon County. She cleared Splain and his partner of any wrongdoing, finding the shooting justified.
Thome’s family subsequently filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against Splain and other PSP defendants. That lawsuit is pending, and the defendants have denied any wrongdoing.
Splain also fatally shot Dzwonchyk in Union Township on Nov. 7, 2021, while responding to a complaint that he was violating a protection-from-abuse order. Hess Graf has opened an investigation into Splain’s involvement in the Dzwonchyk shooting, but had not announced any result at publication time.
LebTown asked Hess Graf for comment on the NAACP complaint, asking specifically whether her investigation of her husband’s fellow trooper at the Jonestown barracks could at least give the “appearance of impropriety.”
In an email reply, Hess Graf said that the complaint was “meritless,” but did not otherwise address whether her marriage to a fellow Jonestown state trooper raises the “appearance of impropriety” in the Splain investigations.
The NAACP’s complaint against Hess Graf can be read here (PDF).
Full response from DA Pier Hess Graf
Our Office conducted a thorough and complete investigation into the Officer Involved Shooting of Charity Thome. We issued a statement at the conclusion of the investigation with our findings and determinations; I stand behind the investigation and statement as I always have.
My Office’s investigation into the Officer Involved Shooting of Andrew Dzwonchyk is ongoing. My Detective Bureau operates independently of the State Police and I stand behind the caliber of each man. We cannot comment on an active investigation. At its conclusion, we will issue a statement with our findings and determinations.
Different news outlets and people lodged baseless allegations towards my ability to act as Lebanon County’s District Attorney since I took Office in 2020. To each of them, I have the same response. I’ve been a prosecutor in this Office for 12 years. I’ve taken 102 Defendants to trial; my conviction rate is nearly ninety percent. I’ve handled brutal homicides, rapes, robberies, and cases of child abuse. In every aspect of my career, I endeavor to serve this community and protect its citizens from the vile and evil criminals who would otherwise prey upon them. Three years ago, I married a wonderful and honorable man. The addition of ‘MRS’ to my name fails to change or alter my abilities as a prosecutor. I respect my fellow elected District Attorneys, the majority of whom are men. I’ve never witnessed the level of attention or coverage to a single one of their spouses as I have mine. It’s 2022 and time to look to my career as a prosecutor rather than make baseless allegations due to my gender.
In summation, the Complaint is meritless.
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This article was updated to correctly reference the Lebanon County “branch” of the NAACP as opposed to the Lebanon County “chapter” as the article originally stated.