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Tuesday, March 12, 2002 - 12:00:00 AM MST
AG seeks to slow Woodward lawsuit
By DAVID GRAM
MONTPELIER -- The Vermont attorney general's office has asked a federal court judge to put on hold a lawsuit by the family of a man shot by Brattleboro police until a criminal probe of the incident is completed.
The filing of that request by Attorney General William Sorrell drew an angry response from lawyers for the family of Robert "Woody" Woodward, 37, whom two officers fatally shot Dec. 2 in the sanctuary of the All Souls Unitarian Church.
"What they're trying to do is completely put a gag order on me and not allow me to get any discovery at all," said Woodward family lawyer Joel Faxon of Bridgeport, Conn. "That's ridiculous."
Discovery is the legal term for information gathered by lawyers as they prepare for trial. Sorrell's motion, filed late last week, argued that for Faxon and Brattleboro lawyer Thomas Costello, who is also working for the Woodwards, to have access to the information could taint the criminal investigation.
Woodward disrupted a Sunday service at the Brattleboro church, going before the congregation and saying he needed sanctuary because the government was after him. Witnesses also said he brandished a small knife. Police were called, three officers arrived and two of them, Marshall Holbrook and Terrance Parker, shot Woodward a total of seven times. He died in a hospital about four hours later.
There has been widespread criticism in the community, with questions raised about whether the officers overreacted or could have subdued Woodward without firing seven rounds at him.
Woodward's parents, Paul and Joanne Woodward, and his sister, Jill Woodward DeBrady, all of the Norwich, Conn., area, filed their suit in January against the town of Brattleboro and the officers.
The Woodwards' lawyers want to interview witnesses and review items ranging from police photos of the scene of the shooting to tapes of 911 calls. They're also seeking police manuals to determine what kind of training Holbrook and Parker had.
"They've declined to even let us look at the knife" with which an agitated Woodward was said to have threatened himself before the officers shot him, Costello said.
The attorney general's motion in the federal court said release of evidence before the criminal investigation is complete "could be devastating."
If the delay is not granted, the attorney general said, "there is a risk that the criminal investigation and any subsequent criminal proceeding may be tainted by inaccurate evidence, manufactured evidence, contaminated jury pools and by the possible infringement of constitutional rights."
The attorney general's motion asks for a stay of 90 days, but leaves open the possibility that the office might ask for more time later.
When they filed suit in January, the Woodwards expressed frustration that there wasn't more information about the case being made public. They said a key reason for bringing the suit was to try to glean the facts about what happened to their son through the legal discovery process.
Woodward's parents had not returned a phone call to their Connecticut home Monday several hours after a message was left on their answering machine. Faxon said they were "flabbergasted" by the latest turn of events.
Costello and Faxon said they were worried that several church members who could be key witnesses in the case were elderly, and that one has died since the December shooting. They also worry that witnesses' memories may fade with time.
Sorrell and two other top lawyers in his office are in Brattleboro this week conducting interviews with members of the church who witnessed the incident, he said in a phone interview Monday.
Both Sorrell and the family's lawyers said the case was unprecedented to their knowledge. Faxon said he had handled several other police shooting cases and had never encountered such resistance when seeking information.
Sorrell said it was "the first time that I've seen parties try to push a civil proceeding so quickly while a criminal investigation is active."
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