By David DeKok
HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) - A Pittsburgh jury on Friday unanimously found that a white police officer did not commit murder when he fatally shot black teenager Antwon Rose, an incident that sparked protests and fueled a debate about racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system.
East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld, 30, shot Rose, 17, as he fled from a car along with an 18-year-old associate who has since pleaded guilty to carrying out a drive-by shooting from the vehicle.
"This case had nothing to do with race," Patrick Thomassey, Rosfeld's lawyer, told reporters outside the courtroom.
The shooting was one of a series of high-profile U.S. police killings of unarmed black teens and men.
A group of about 100 Rose family supporters chanted for "justice" outside the courtroom following the verdict, their fists raised in the air.
"Antwon Rose was shot in the back, he was unarmed. He did not pose a threat to the officers or the community, the verdict today says that that is OK," said Lee Merritt, the family's attorney.
Lawyers for Rosfeld, of Verona, Pennsylvania, argued that he acted in self-defense because he believed Rose was carrying a weapon.
Thomassey portrayed Rosfeld as a police officer acting as a shield between good citizens and rampant crime in an area of Allegheny County.
The jury of nine white people and three black people deliberated for less than four hours to reach their decision.
"I was not surprised at the verdict because this happens time and time again," said Summer Lee, Pennsylvania state representative for Allegheny County. "We've seen it in Ferguson, we've seen it in Baltimore, we've seen it with black men and women killed by police officers."
Pittsburgh police were braced for street protests over the verdict, although Rose's family publicly pleaded for a peaceful response.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, who filed homicide charges against Rosfeld, said he disagreed with the verdict.
"In the interest of justice, we must continue to do our job of bringing charges in situations where charges are appropriate, regardless of the role an individual holds in the community," Zappala said in a statement.
The shooting occurred on the night of June 19 in suburban East Pittsburgh, about 11 miles (18 km) from the downtown court where the trial took place.
(Reporting by David DeKok, additional reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O'Brien)