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Grand jury possible in police shooting

December 5, 2001

By SUSAN SMALLHEER and KEVIN O’CONNOR

Herald Staff

BRATTLEBORO — Invest-igation into the police shooting of an armed man at a church service Sunday has revealed conflicting accounts whether officers gave Robert A. Woodward a chance to surrender, Windham County State’s Attorney Dan Davis said Tuesday.

Davis said he may convene a grand jury to consider the shooting of the 37-year-old Bellows Falls man, who died four hours later in emergency surgery. The Vermont Attorney General’s Office, for its part, said Tuesday it would investigate the incident.

Two veteran Brattleboro police officers, Terrance Parker and Marshall Holbrook, shot Woodward a total of seven times after they were called to All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church Sunday morning for a report of an agitated man with a 4½- to 5-inch folding knife.

“It’s the type of case I would consider convening a grand jury,” Davis said.

The prosecutor added that he learned about the attorney general’s parallel investigation from news reporters.

“Every time an officer or officers use deadly force, it’s not uncommon for us to investigate whether it was a justifiable homicide,” said Assistant Attorney General Cindy Maguire, chief of the state’s criminal division.

Law enforcement officials and church members said they’ve heard different individual interpretations of what happened.

Norman Hunt, 85, of Newfane, for example, sat next to his wife, Mary, as they watched police enter the church sanctuary and shoot Woodward.

“The police came running in from the back shouting,” Hunt said Tuesday evening. “As soon as they were up there they started shooting and firing. We thought they were stun guns — we couldn’t believe they were firing real guns.”

The church held a private discussion Tuesday night for members who attended the Sunday service. Churchgoers who asked not to be named confirmed the basic details of Hunt’s account.

“When I saw them go in, it was no time at all when we heard shots,” one member said.

But no one interviewed could say what police shouted beforehand.

A doctor in the church was said to have accompanied Woodward in the ambulance, and the membership now is considering taking up a collection in his memory.

“Everybody feels so saddened by it,” one church member said.

Clamor grew Tuesday for an exhaustive probe into why the officers shot Woodward seven times with .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols, rather than tackling or subduing him with pepper spray.

Officers handcuffed Woodward after shooting him. Davis said it was “common practice” for police to do that.

But civil libertarians had questions Tuesday about what transpired before Woodward was handcuffed.

“It appears as though there will have to be a high burden on those who pulled the trigger to show that there were no other means to deal with this situation,” said Benson Scotch, director of the Vermont office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Davis, a former state trooper and Windham County’s chief prosecutor for 15 years, said he didn’t have all the facts and wouldn’t speculate whether police had warned Woodward to surrender or were justified in using lethal force.

Davis said he hadn’t seen any direct statements by the 20 or so witnesses to the shooting and had received only preliminary written reports from Vermont State Police investigators.

“I am aware that some members of the congregation believe that the police acted hastily,” Davis said. “There are also parishioners who don’t feel that way. You have a large group of people and a very traumatic, startling event. People see things differently.”

Davis said he would hold a press conference in the next day or so to share more detailed reports.

“To do otherwise, would be irresponsible,” he said.

An audience of about 70 churchgoers watched as Woodward walked to the front of the sanctuary just before 10 a.m. Sunday.

Hunt, a locally known peace activist, qualified his comments Tuesday by saying, “The whole thing was upsetting enough that I was probably not taking things in as quickly as I would have.” But Hunt confirmed what he saw and heard.

“I’m not making any charges against anybody, but it’s not secret. A man trembling with fear and afraid for his life came to our church asking for sanctuary. He said if the police caught up with him they would kill him and that’s exactly what happened.”

Hunt said the incident began when Woodward approached a sanctuary platform just before the service and asked for help.

“He was a little garbled because he was shaking. Some people tried to suggest postponing this until after the service or going into another space, but he said he had to talk to everybody then.”

Hunt saw that Woodward had written statements on pieces of paper that authorities confirm were blank checks. A church member asked for children and then adults to leave the sanctuary. But the Hunts stayed put.

“My wife has a walker — I would have had to go and get that, and it takes some time. He was protesting so loudly, ‘Don’t move, please don’t leave,’ I thought the quietest thing to do would be to sit still and see what went on.”

Hunt then saw Woodward pull out a knife.

“We didn’t see that pocketknife for quite a long time and he didn’t threaten anyone with it. He put it up to his eye. I didn’t feel the least bit frightened and my wife didn’t either. He was very frightened, but he was not threatening us in any way.”

Hunt said he was surprised when police arrived. Hunt didn’t know what the police were shouting, but said the shooting “horrified those of us in the room.”

Hunt estimates he and his wife were about 10 feet from one of the officers who shot Woodward.

“He fell to the floor and seemed to me to be motionless,” Hunt said. “At that point we were getting ourselves out — I was concentrating on helping my wife get out of the room.”

Davis would neither confirm nor deny Hunt’s version of what occurred.

The prosecutor said he has often used a secret grand jury to investigate problematic cases. He convened one last year, for example, as a special prosecutor in a fatal shooting by Vermont State Police in Bennington County.

But Paul Berch, a public defender in Vermont District Court for Windham County and co-chairman of an ACLU advisory panel, was among those saying a secret grand jury review would not satisfy the public.

In a grand jury, 18 to 24 jurors listen to evidence presented by the prosecution — without defense lawyers present — and determine whether criminal charges should be brought.

Berch said grand juries “can be used as a protective device in some ways to accomplish what a particular prosecutor may or may not want to accomplish.”

The public defender said the secrecy surrounding grand jury proceedings would leave community members dissatisfied. He said people he has spoken with believe there needs to be “a public airing of the facts and that the process be not behind closed doors but opened to a concerned community.”

At the state Attorney General’s Office, Maguire said the Brattleboro police shooting case was the third in Vermont within a year, following ones in the Northeast Kingdom and Williston.

Maguire said her office would interview every witness and conduct its own forensic tests, including ballistics tests on the two pistols used by the officers.

She said it was standard procedure for the Attorney General’s Office to do an investigation into a police shooting, noting her office assisted Davis last year during the Bennington County grand jury.

Investigation into the police shooting was turned over to Vermont State Police and Davis’ office immediately Sunday upon the consent of acting Brattleboro Police Chief John Martin.

The two officers involved are now on regular time off, Town Manager Jerry Remillard said, noting he believed both had completed their normal shift of 10 days on and four days off when the shooting occurred.

Remillard said he would consult with Martin before deciding whether the two officers should be put on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

Martin is on vacation this week, slightly complicating matters. Under town policy, the police chief makes those decisions, the manager said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Susan Smallheer at susan.smallheer@rutlandherald.com. Contact Kevin O’Connor at kevin.oconnor@rutlandherald.com.