Lt. Gov. John Fetterman was acting like “f—ing Batman” when he brandished a shotgun at an unarmed Black jogger in 2013, one of his opponents, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta said.
The incident happened when Fetterman was mayor of Braddock, a majority Black borough where he served for 13 years.
Fetterman said he saw the man running away after hearing what he believed were gunshots, a claim backed up by two witnesses who also reported hearing gunfire, according to a police report. He chased down the man and detained him until police arrived. Police said in their report they arrived and found Fetterman’s truck parked in the middle of the roadway.
He was holding a black shotgun in his hands and continued screaming at cops that he knew that the jogger “was shooting.” The man was searched for weapons but he was unarmed.
The shotgun-toting episode has received renewed attention from state and national media as Fetterman’s profile has risen in recent months since he announced his candidacy for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat. Now firmly the Democratic frontrunner, with a sizeable campaign war chest, Fetterman has spent the last few weeks fending off attacks from Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb ahead of the May 17 primary.
Kenyatta, who has fallen far behind Fetterman in recent polls, returned to the incident during both televised debates. At one point, given a chance to ask opponents a question, Kenyatta urged the hulking lieutenant governor to own his mistake and apologize to the jogger, Christopher Miyares.
In an interview with Delaware Valley Journal this week, Kenyatta ratcheted up his attacks on Fetterman, drawing comparisons between his actions and that of three men who were convicted of chasing down and fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery with a shotgun as he jogged through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga. in February 2020.
He said that while he did not believe Fetterman to be a racist, his actions still constituted an “act of gun violence.”
“I don’t think the parallels stop at Ahmaud Aubery,” Kenyatta said. “You can also look at Trayvon Martin. You can look at Kyle Rittenhouse – people who feel like they can be vigilantes. I mean, John is not f–ing Batman. There’s no way you can look at his behavior and say this is appropriate. … He has to model a basic level of leadership. A part of leadership is owning up to mistakes. … What he did was wrong. He knows it was wrong.”
Kenyatta was not holding his breath about Fetterman apologizing because “any type of accountability” for him feels “like persecution.”
“Powerful men like John are used to having to play by a different set of rules,” Kenyatta said at the debate. “He wasn’t held accountable because he was the mayor, and he’s trying not to be held accountable now.”
For his part, Fetterman did not offer a mea culpa at the debate, instead suggesting it wasn’t a big deal in the minds of majority-Black voters in Braddock who re-elected him. And his camp did not respond to DVJ’s emailed request for comment.
Kenyatta pointed out at the debate that Fetterman won re-election with only 186 votes.
“I’m not sure why you’d want to diminish a small marginalized Black community,” Fetterman shot back.
Even some of the most ardent of Fetterman’s supporters believe it would be good for him to apologize for the incident.
“People never let us forget our mistakes, even if you’re a lieutenant governor,” said Alim Howell, an activist with Race for Peace who spoke supportively of Fetterman. “I think it was just a family protection instinct. But I think he should apologize. We all have to apologize at some point for our actions.”
The activist said it would have been better for Fetterman to let the police handle the situation rather than intervening.
But two legal experts who spoke to the Delaware Valley Journal said the then-mayor’s actions appeared justified despite his opponents’ attempt to paint him as a vigilante and Fetterman’s own seemingly incriminating interview with a local news outlet that his actions that day may have run afoul of state law.
It can be a crime to point a gun at somebody in the state of Pennsylvania, but prominent defense attorney Charles Peruto Jr. said Fetterman was protected from prosecution because he was acting in an official capacity.
“As the mayor of Braddock, he is also in charge of the police department. He is ostensibly the highest law enforcement agent in town,” Peruto said. “He can hold the guy in custody for investigative purposes.”
Fetterman’s camp started using the term “chief law enforcement officer” last year to rebut suggestions from opponents like Kenyatta who accused him of acting like a vigilante, NBC News reported.
The Pennsylvania Association of Borough Mayors describes the duties of mayors in its handbook as “to preserve order in the borough, enforce the ordinances and resolutions, remove nuisances, exact a faithful performance of the duties of the officers appointed and perform such other duties assigned by law or ordinance.”
Former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. said the law doesn’t punish people for “making mistakes of fact.”
“It punishes people for making intentional or reckless decisions that are objectively criminal or so obviously ‘bad’ as to be unreasonable under the circumstances known to the actor at the time. … My opinion is that there was no crime on its face,” he said.
The man at the other end of the shotgun, Miyares wrote to The Philadelphia Inquirer while serving a prison sentence for kidnapping, terrorist threats and unlawful restraint, among other crimes.
In letters, he claimed Fetterman “lied about everything” when he denied pointing the shotgun at his chest and claimed he did not initially know his race.
But Miyares said he did not believe the incident should keep the lieutenant governor from holding higher office.
“It is inhumane to believe one mistake should define a man’s life,” Miyares said. “I hope he gets to be a senator.”
Still, Democrats fear that any act of contrition from Fetterman at this point may ring hollow and won’t be enough to assuage the concerns of Black voters come the November general election..
“I don’t believe he can appeal to swing voters,” Lamb said at the debate.
Kenyatta, in the interview, encouraged his political rival to “sit with how his actions feel to Black and Brown Americans who have seen situations like this go in a different way.”
“This is telling us a lot about who John Fetterman is, and I’m not sure it’s telling us anything good,” Kenyatta said.