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BURLINGTON FREE PRESS

December 14, 2001

Police shooting raises suspicions


Explaining away the Dec. 2 fatal shooting of an agitated man by police inside a Brattleboro church isn't going to be easy.

How can anyone justify pumping seven bullets into Robert Woodward, 37, of Bellows Falls as frightened parishioners looked on?

All he had was a pocket knife, and all he was doing was begging the church to give him "asylum" from government agents, including the police, who he ominously said were trying to kill him.

The claim by Brattleboro's acting police chief that the two officers who fired their guns correctly employed department procedures won't cut it.

"At least two of the shots came as he was lying on his side," said one eyewitness, J.B.C. "Tom" Thomas of Marlboro.

Woodward, witnesses said, was not a threat to anyone but himself. Whatever happened to using words or pepper spray -- anything but bullets -- to subdue someone?

"We were amazed that the police used live ammunition," said parishioner Norman Hunt of Newfane. "We thought they were using stun guns. There wasn't any effort by them to get him to put the knife down."

That's troubling because the parishioners themselves appeared to have calmed down Woodward to the point he had put his knife away. He pulled it out again only when police burst into the room.

Witnesses that day also say the police officers handcuffed the bleeding Woodward after the shooting and prevented a doctor in the congregation from tending to him until an ambulance came.

"The doctor tried to do her job, but she couldn't while they were keeping him handcuffed," Thomas said.

Woodward died several hours later while undergoing hospital surgery, so it's hard to know whether immediate care might have helped.

Still, is handcuffing wounded shooting victims really standard police procedure?

All of which raises yet another important question: Should Windham County State's Attorney Dan Davis be involved with the investigation into the conduct of the police in this case?

Davis insists the answer is yes.

"I was the only prosecutor who went to the scene after the shooting," he said. "And I've had much greater access to the investigation than other prosecutors to date."

Unfortunately, that's exactly the problem. County prosecutors and local police necessarily have a cozy relationship by the nature of the work they jointly do.

Davis acknowledged he knows the officers who fired their guns, but said he does not "socialize" with them outside of work.

He also said he'd have no problem bringing charges against the officers if the facts dictate that.

In the eyes of the public, though, it's hard to believe the prosecutor-police relationship magically vanishes when the prosecutor has to decide whether a cop acted improperly in a case where someone was killed.

It makes far more sense for an outside prosecutor to make that call or, better yet, the state Attorney General's Office.

Davis, a veteran prosecutor and a former state cop, should understand that more than most.

Last year, when police fatally shot an unarmed man in Pownal, Bennington County State's Attorney William Wright properly asked for another prosecutor to oversee the investigation of the shooting. The prosecutor he selected? Davis.

Davis also has his own credibility problems.

Five months ago, his office was slammed by Judge David Suntag for repeatedly failing to promptly provide evidence gathered by police but possibly critical to defendants.

Suntag was so upset about the practices that he threw out an aggravated assault conviction because of it.

"Not once has the State's Attorney's Office explained why it did not take steps to ensure that all materials in police possession were timely disclosed," Suntag fumed in his 20-page decision.

If Davis is smart, he'll step away from the Woodward shooting case -- for his and the community's sake.

Sam Hemingway is the Free Press state news columnist. His columns appear Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. If you have a comment or tip, phone 660-1850, or e-mail shemingway@bfp.burlington freepress.com. For past columns, go to www.burlingtonfreepress.com