Sorrell Clears Brattleboro Police in Fatal Shooting
04/03/02 12:00AM By John Dillon
(Host) Attorney General William Sorrell has concluded that two Brattleboro police officers were legally justified when they shot a distraught man in a church last December. Thirty seven year old Robert Woodward died several hours after the shooting.
Sorrell's finding of no criminal wrongdoing on the part of police caps a lengthy investigation in the shooting. But, as VPR's John Dillon reports, the attorney general's conclusion angered Woodward's friends and supporters.
(Sorrell) "Considering all of the evidence, making the findings that we do, that the shooting death of Robert Woodward on December 2 of last year, although tragic, was legally justified."
(Voices from audience) "Lies!" "Murder!" "You know it's murder!" "Killers! Killers!"
(Dillon) The conclusion of attorney General William Sorrell's investigation came four months to the day after Robert Woodward was shot.
He announced the results in Brattleboro and the crowd was hostile. Woodward's friends and supporters packed the news conference. They interrupted Sorrell repeatedly, and called the shooting an outrageous abuse of police power.
Sorrell says officers Terrance Parker and Marshall Hollbrook felt in imminent danger from Woodward, who brandished a knife with a three and a half inch blade. He says officers shot after Woodward refused orders to drop the knife and then moved toward the police in what they perceived was a threatening manner.
(Sorrell) " Mister Woodward, standing in this location with the knife to his eye, brought the knife down with the blade pointing forward and proceeded, in the account of the officers, to rush or run in this direction. ¿ Officer Parker fired one shot."
(Dillon) Woodward didn't drop the knife after the first shot was fired. Police then fired six more shots. Sorrell says the officers had to pry the knife from Woodward's hands.
Woodward, who lived in Bellows Falls, appeared at the church acting distraught and paranoid. Witnesses say he claimed the police and FBI were after him. Woodward's friends say Woodward had never before shown signs of mental illness.
Sorrell says the state medical examiner found high levels of ephedrine in his system, an herbal medication that's used to treat congestion from allergies or colds. He says that one possible side effect of ephedrine is that it can induce psychotic episodes at high levels.
Sorrell acknowledged that some witnesses in the church did not feel threatened by Woodward and do not feel that the shooting was justified. He says he and his staff tried to sort through all the differing accounts:
(Sorrell) "This was a traumatic incident. It happened within a very short period of time. It's estimated that from the time the police arrived at the church to the time of the shooting was no more than a minute. Traumatic incidents can have an impact on people.
(Dillon) While Sorrell's finding means that the two officers won't face criminal charges, Woodward's family has filed a civil lawsuit against the police and the town.
The family's lawyer, Thomas Costello, says Sorrell's investigation did not answer many of the relevant questions, such as whether the officers were adequately trained, or could have subdued Woodward with pepper spray:
(Costello) "We'll pursue our subpoenas. We'll get our information, we'll take depositions. We'll pursue the liability and find the truth and the means to make sure this doesn't happen again. That issue the attorney general indicated he did not pursue, the training, the practices, the alternative methods... . He even indicated he didn't know whether or not they had pepper spray. This should not have happened. It should not happen again. And that's the mission of this family."
(Dillon) Sorrell has asked the federal judge hearing the civil case to delay the case while the criminal investigation was underway. Now that the officers have been cleared, Sorrell says he'll ask the court to allow the case to proceed.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon in Brattleboro.
Read the attorney general's full report.