Police Killing Looms Over May DA Race in Eastern Pennsylvania
Christian Hall’s hands were raised when police shot him. A prosecutor running for Monroe County DA says it was justified. Another candidate vows to re-open the case.
Alex Burness | April 25, 2023
The debate inside the Eastern Monroe Public Library on April 1 had gone mostly as expected by the time Mike Mancuso, a staff prosecutor running for Monroe County district attorney this spring, was wrapping up his point about Pennsylvania needing to adopt new standards for evaluating police when they hurt or kill people. “That Hall case could be used as a learning tool here,” Mancuso said. Then a man in the audience shouted, “I asked you to stop using my son’s name!”
That man, Gareth Hall, is the father of Christian Hall, a Chinese American teenager who was gunned down by the Pennsylvania State Police on December 30, 2020. Christian’s mother, Fe Hall, says her son was clearly in distress: he had recently turned 19, had just come off a break-up, and he was lacking mental health treatment because his provider had recently left their practice. The day of the shooting, Christian had called 911 to report a “possible suicider” on a highway overpass outside Stroudsburg, the county seat in the Pocono Mountains, about an hour north of Allentown; police officers were dispatched to the scene.
About two years ago, it was Mancuso, the top deputy DA in Monroe County, who announced that the DA’s office had deemed the shooting of Hall to be justified and would not be prosecuting any of the officers involved. “Frankly, it’s a testament to the troopers that they didn’t shoot sooner,” he said at a press conference a few months after the incident.
As Spotlight PA reported in a deep examination of the case in late 2021, Christian was carrying on him a toy gun that looked realistic, and the state police initially claimed that he had pointed it toward officers before the shooting. In announcing that it wouldn’t pursue charges against the troopers, the DA’s office released a redacted and partially blurred video of the incident, taken from a camera attached to a police car. The video obscured Christian’s body in the moments immediately preceding, during, and immediately after police shot at him.
But the full video, which the Hall family sued in state court to obtain, showed that Christian’s hands were in the air—the toy guy held in one of them—until the moment that troopers fired.
In an interview with Bolts, Christian Hall’s parents said they have felt lied to and disrespected repeatedly by the DA’s office since state police killed their son.
They, alongside many of their supporters, who held vigils and rallies after the shooting, believe that Christians’ raised hands made the shooting unjustifiable. “Christian was standing in the universal stance of surrender,” states a federal lawsuit the parents filed last year against, state police officials, Monroe County DA David Christine, who is stepping down after 24 years in office, and Mancuso, who is now running to replace him.
Mancuso defended his office’s handling of the tape at the debate on April 1, saying, “The blurring of the video was only done to spare feelings. Most people don’t like or get off on watching people fatally shot.” Mancuso did not respond to an interview request for this story.
The Halls, who adopted Christian when he was a baby, don’t buy that the DA’s office had their feelings in mind. They say prosecutors never reached out to talk with them during their investigation of the shooting—which the DA office disputes—nor ahead of the press conference to announce the finding that Hall’s death was justified. Fe told Bolts, “I’m Asian, Gareth is Black, Christian is from China. Did race play on that day? Did race play into the way the troopers and the DA office responded to Gareth and I after the fact? Was the expectation we’d just roll over? I don’t know. … It’s very, very difficult to not think about it that way.”
This year’s election for Monroe County DA carries high stakes for the Hall family. Manusco’s rival in the Democratic primary, Donald Leeth, a former public defender and prosecutor in Monroe County who now works in private practice, argues that officials mishandled the investigation into Christian Hall’s death and promises, if elected, to seek a fresh probe of the shooting. He says it should have been investigated by a more independent party, like the state attorney general or a special prosecutor.
“It was the state police investigating the state police, and the DA office relying on the findings of the state police,” Leeth told Bolts. “Nothing independent.”
Monroe County, home to about 170,000 residents, leans narrowly Democratic, and features one of the few contested prosecutor races in the state this year. The one Republican in the race is Alex Marek, a former Monroe County prosecutor who now works as a prosecutor in neighboring Northampton County. Marek did not respond to an interview request.
The Democratic primary between Leeth and Mancuso will take place on May 16, and the winner will face Marek in November.
Those closely watching the race say Christian Hall’s death seems to loom over it.
“It was definitely a surprise that something like that could happen here,” Jacob Pride, who chairs the town board in Smithfield Township just northeast of Stroudsburg, told Bolts. “It wasn’t something people I knew contemplated. It was devastating, the effect on the community.”
Pride said people in the county generally have a “very positive relationship” with local law enforcement, but that the shooting had shaken that trust somewhat. Christa Caceres, who leads the local chapter of the NAACP, told Bolts that Christian Hall’s killing also underscored how few people in the county are actively seeking accountability for police violence.
“This is Small Town, USA,” Caceres said. “You’re not going to have overwhelming numbers of people publicly associate themselves with activism. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t stop the work that we do.”
In his campaign for DA, Leeth has gone after Mancuso for how prosecutors handled the shooting. “There was never any intent to refer this,” Leeth said at the April 1 debate. “There was never any intent because it wasn’t justice over politics.”
Mancuso responded by scolding Leeth for his criticism. “It is a shameful thing to be using this tragedy for political gain, and I see you’ve been hard at work scheming that,” Mancuso shot back during their debate. “So, shame on you.”
Wendy Serfass, a detective sergeant for the DA’s office and its lead investigator on the Hall case, defended her work on the case as independent from state police and their probe into the shooting. While she said the DA’s office doesn’t do a completely separate investigation (for instance, she conducted joint interviews of witnesses with state police), she told Bolts. “I author my report outside any input from the Pennsylvania State Police.”
Christian Hall’s family, community leaders across Monroe County, and the DA candidates have all said, in different ways, that they hope the killing can catalyze much-needed improvement to the system of mental health care in the county and state. But 28 months since his death, it appears little has changed.
Hope Christman, a Monroe resident and case manager in behavioral health care, told Bolts there isn’t a single acute-care, inpatient behavioral health facility in the whole county, and that people in crisis are usually sent to a hospital emergency room and often must leave the county for care. “We do not have enough practitioners,” she said. “And the ones that we do have are swamped.”
Christman pointed to the case of a teenager at Stroudsburg High School who died by suicide last year. “This student was on a waiting list to receive services,” she said. “I realize sometimes change comes in increments but when you have this large of a problem—the lack of practitioners, the lack of resources — it needs to be gone at a little more boldly.”
Fe Hall says she still can’t understand why her son’s breakdown was met with guns. “The response to that medical emergency, that mental health crisis, was a military response,” she said. “Police went and responded the way they know how to respond.”
Leeth shares this concern. “We use our police officers as the frontline to kind of address a cure-all bandaid for all of the different issues,” he told Bolts. He says Monroe County should develop teams trained to respond to mental health crises, drawing inspiration from cities that are already trying this, like Portland and Denver. At the April 1 debate, Mancuso also said that the county needs mental health response teams.
Gareth Hall, an educator by trade who is certified to teach grades seven through 12, says he’s been unable to enter any high schools since Christian’s death. “I cannot stand being around so many kids who are close in age to what my son was at that time,” he said.
The Halls say that Christian’s jacket is still draped on a dining room chair. His mathematical formulas are still scribbled on a white board at home in view of where Fe works. “I stare at it all day,” she said. His parents have kept his bedroom preserved as it was before police killed him, unmade bed and all.
Bolts is closely covering the ramifications of Pennsylvania‘s 2023 elections for voting rights and criminal justice.