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Ex-Philly police officer sentenced to 11½ to 23 months in prison in landmark fatal shooting case

Eric Ruch was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Dennis Plowden Jr. in 2017.

The Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, where former police officer Eric Ruch was sentenced for voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Dennis Plowden Jr.
The Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, where former police officer Eric Ruch was sentenced for voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Dennis Plowden Jr.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A former Philadelphia police officer was sentenced Thursday to 11½ to 23 months in prison for the 2017 fatal shooting of Dennis Plowden Jr., a conviction prosecutors called the first for an on-duty killing in recent city history.

The penalty fell years below the minimum state sentencing guidelines for the voluntary-manslaughter conviction that a jury handed Eric Ruch in September, leading Plowden’s family members and criminal justice reform advocates to say he got a sweetheart deal. District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office said convictions on identical charges have yielded 5½-to-11-year sentences on average since he took office in 2018.

In sentencing Ruch, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott said that he had demonstrated good behavior since he was charged two years ago and she believed a longer sentence would not offer him rehabilitation.

”Nothing he is going to do in prison is going to make him a better person,” McDermott said to a courtroom packed with family, friends, and colleagues of Ruch and Plowden.

McDermott suggested she would have let Ruch, 34, walk out of court with no prison time would it not diminish the severity of the voluntary-manslaughter charge, which calls for a minimum of 4½ years in prison, according to state sentencing guidelines.

The sentence came after more than two hours of emotional testimony from both sides. Outside the courthouse, Plowden’s family expressed sharp disappointment over what they called a lenient sentence that failed to account for the family’s loss and suffering.

“I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed,” said Tania Bond, Plowden’s widow. “Who wastes five years to come to court and hear 11 to 23 months? Did we value Dennis’ life or did we just throw something out there to feel like we shut the family up and we satisfied?”

McDermott said the sentence came with parole eligibility and carried no financial penalties. A spokesperson for Krasner said the office is “reviewing options” and has 30 days to appeal the sentence to the Superior Court.

In a statement, Krasner noted that the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission recommendations allow a judge to reduce a sentence by one year below the minimum recommendation. “This sentence falls far below state guidelines,” he said.

In September, a jury found Ruch guilty of voluntary manslaughter for shooting and killing Plowden, a 25-year-old who was in the process of surrendering to officers following a car chase in the Ogontz neighborhood. Over the course of a five-day trial, witnesses said Plowden emerged from his crashed vehicle in a daze and was on the ground in a seated position when Ruch fired a single shot at his head. The bullet tore through Plowden’s left hand before entering his skull — a hand he was raising to surrender, prosecutors argued.

Ruch and five other officers, including his former partner, testified that they thought Plowden was reaching with his right hand for a gun while on the ground, and that Ruch feared for his life when he pulled the trigger. “The hand you can’t see is the hand that can hurt you,” the former officer testified.

But Plowden didn’t have a gun on him. Officers disputed their department’s own crime-scene sketch that showed Ruch had cover behind police cars when he shot Plowden. And witnesses — even though some agreed Plowden’s right hand was concealed when Ruch fired — acknowledged that the man was dazed and defenseless at the time of the fatal shot.

Police originally said Plowden, who was Black, was driving a 2013 Hyundai sedan that was connected to a murder investigation. They later determined that he had no connection to the case, and prosecutors questioned whether Ruch even knew about the wanted vehicle when he initiated the stop.

At sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Vincent Corrigan noted that Plowden left behind two children and three stepchildren. His youngest, 5, knows his father only from visits to the cemetery, he said. Family members said they have struggled to make sense of the moments that led to Ruch’s pulling the trigger.

“My heart was ripped from me in six seconds,” said sister Diamond Plowden. “In six seconds, my life changed.”

Plowden’s mother, Shanita McCoy, turned to Ruch and said: “Eric Ruch still gets to see his wife in prison. I hope my son’s death haunts you every day.”

Defense lawyer David Mischak and Ruch family members cast the officer as a community-oriented and family man whose life had been undone by a quick decision in the heat of a chase.

He emphasized that the officer had been remorseful. Mischak cast the shooting as a mistake brought about by the “dangerous and chaotic” situation that Plowden had set in motion.

McDermott appeared to agree. She rejected prosecutors’ depiction of Ruch as a cold-blooded killer who conspired with his colleagues to get away with murder.

In her remarks before sentencing, the judge blamed Plowden for initiating the car chase, striking the open door of a police car, injuring an officer who was trying to exit the cruiser, and then crashing his own vehicle. “He was the one who created the larger danger that the officers found themselves in,” McDermott said.

McDermott said she gave Ruch “credit” for his reportedly positive impact at a nursing home where he took a security guard job after his firing from the department in 2020.

The sentence stirred controversy outside the courtroom, where criminal justice reform advocates blasted what they viewed as hypocrisy and police favoritism.

“I don’t think that prison makes anyone a better person,” said Kris Henderson, director of the Amistad Law Project, a public interest law firm that advocates against mass incarceration. “But I also think this is a really clear example of the double standard that exists when it comes to law enforcement and everyone else.”