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Wednesday, December 12, 2001 - 12:00:00 AM MST


A town on trial



Those who run this town don't get it. They sit in silence, uttering no public condolences, not even organizing memorial services, more than a week after their police stormed into a church service and gunned down an agitated man who was pleading for sanctuary. Had the shooters not been cops, everyone would be calling it an execution, an assassination.

This Vermont town is now on trial, whether those who make the decisions like it or not. The timeless beauty of Brattleboro that begins at the banks of the Connecticut River and stretches westward past picture-postcard homes and delicious rolling hills, is now darkened by a cloud of callous, silent indifference toward a man who went to a church, begged for help, warned that he was about to be assassinated and, minutes later, was indeed killed by police who fired seven bullets into his body.

At least 20 church-goers looked on in horror as the cops shot him again and again. One put it this way in a letter to the Brattleboro Reformer.

"My wife and I were sitting in All Souls Church on Sunday morning, Dec. 2, only a few feet from where two policemen stood when they fired the shots that killed Robert Woodward. Woodward came into our church asking for sanctuary. At that point he had no weapon in sight. He told us that if the police caught him they would kill him. By the time the police arrived Woodward had a small folding knife which he was pointing at his eye. I did not see him at any time point it in any other direction, nor did he make any sort of threatening remark or gesture. No attempt was made to reason with Woodward, to spray 'pepper' on his face, to shoot 'stun' bullets, to fire live bullets near but not into him, nor to incapacitate him, as with shooting at his knees. These are facts."

Robert Woodward's wide circle of friends considers him to have been one of the kindest, most generous and helpful persons they ever knew. He cared deeply about conserving the environment and was well known for taking long bicycle journeys to avoid using a car. Friends have described Mr. Woodward's gentle nature, his bounding willingness to help young people, his fondness for the outdoors and his non-violence.

No doubt about it, Brattleboro is on trial. It's not the police who are being tried, for their role in the tragedy is already being investigated at the state level. It is those who run the town that are being judged right now. They must abandon their insensitive, cold-blooded silence and step up, express credible public sorrow at this horrendous tragedy and motivate everyone in the area -- including the police -- to take part in a commemoration of Mr. Woodward's life.

Only by taking these first steps can the town redeem itself.

Jack Rieley is a resident of Brattleboro.