BRATTLEBORO -- The U.S. Justice Department has directed the FBI to investigate the Dec. 2 Brattleboro police shooting of a man seeking sanctuary from what he called government persecution.

The two police officers who killed Robert Woodward are the focus of the probe, a Justice Department spokesman said Thursday.

Officers Terrance Parker and Marshall Holbrook shot Woodward seven times in the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in West Brattleboro. They were cleared of any wrongdoing on April 2, after a lengthy investigation by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell that focused largely on the technical details of the shooting.

Sorrell denied the existence of the FBI investigation Thursday afternoon. He said David Kirby, director of the U.S. Attorney's office criminal division, told him that Vermont's FBI office is not conducting an investigation nor is it aware of the Justice directive.

But the case has been reopened, according to Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division in Washington, and the FBI has been charged with determining whether Holbrook and Parker criminally violated Woodward's civil rights.

Corallo would not specify why or when the investigation began, how many detectives are assigned to the case, or when a finding could be expected.

But one Justice Department official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the investigation will start by re-examining the investigation conducted by Sorrell and the Vermont State Police. The FBI will look at the report and raw materials such as evidence, medical records and witness statements.

At that point the investigators will determine whether the case merits a more in-depth look, the official said.

The FBI is charged with determining if Woodward's civil rights were criminally violated. Investigators must ascertain whether Holbrook and Parker used excess force or used their authority as law enforcement officers to deprive Woodward of the essential right to life. That right, laid out in the 14th amendment to the Constitution, states that the government cannot "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

A Justice Department spokesman said there are thousands of similar probes currently active nationwide, but one legal scholar characterized such a high-level investigation as rare.

"If it's just a matter of a questionable police shooting," said Michael Mello, a criminal and constitutional law professor at the Vermont Law School, "that is almost never enough to attract the attention of the civil rights division of the federal Justice Department, especially (Attorney General John) Ashcroft's Justice Department."

Details around the last 12 hours of Woodward's life are murky, but there have been unconfirmed reports from Woodward's neighbors that the FBI visited Woodward's Bellows Falls apartment the night of Dec. 1.

Witnesses to the shooting reported that Woodward, an environmental activist with no history of violence or mental illness, entered the church agitated and speaking of government conspiracies and torture, specifically mentioning the FBI and CIA, and that after he was shot he cried "political assassination."

"If the feds are thinking there might be a chance that this guy was shot to shut him up," Mello said, "it's a stretch, it's a very thin read -- but there's got to be something like that floating around."

Brattleboro Police Chief John Martin said Thursday he was not aware of the FBI probe, but that it was not unexpected. The chief said he had requested such an investigation shortly after the shooting, but was told by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division that the state's investigation was adequate.

"My interest was that I felt it was going to be eventually requested, and rather than prolonging the inevitable, I wanted to begin and end as quickly as possible," he said.

Martin said he did not yet have enough information about the investigation to re-evaluate whether Holbrook and Parker should be taken back off active duty. Both officers returned to duty at the end of May.

Martin said he was confident that the FBI would reach the same conclusion as Sorrell.

"If we have 10 investigations, let the facts speak for themselves," he added. "The conclusion should be the same in every one of them."

State officials, police and church witnesses contacted Thursday were unaware of the investigation.

Gov. Howard Dean's spokeswoman, Sue Allen, said the governor did not know about it and that he would have no comment on the matter.

Last week, Allen told the Reformer that Dean is not expected to appoint an independent investigator, as a group called Justice for Woody is asking.

"Governor Dean has been reluctant to do that in the past and has a great deal of faith in the attorney general," Allen said. "He read the report and was comfortable with the findings. I think he would be reluctant to appoint another investigation at this point."

There were 18 people left in the church at the time Woodward was shot, all of whom gave statements to state police about what they saw. One witness has since died. If the FBI investigation presses beyond Sorrell's report, the witnesses will be asked to recount the event once again, the Justice source said.

Contacted Thursday, two witnesses, Polly Wilson and Norman Hunt, said they were not aware of the new investigation nor had they been approached. But both said they thought re-opening the case was a positive step.

"My response is that the more fresh air and sunlight that gets in to this case, the better," said Wilson. "I know of others who were so horrified by it and when the report came out and exonerated the police, they felt uneasy and thought, 'We can't do anything about it, but we need to get on with our lives.'"

Wilson said she saw in Woodward extreme fear and anxiety and that he said he was afraid specifically of the FBI. He threatened suicide, Wilson said, to avoid being tortured.

"You can't really say that that's an unreasonable fear," Wilson said. "But it seems unreasonable when you're sitting in a church in Brattleboro, Vermont."

Several witnesses, including trained psychiatric professionals, have said Woodward was acting psychotic.

Corallo declined to comment on whether there ever had been or is now an FBI investigation on Woodward; the FBi investigation will focus on Holbrook and Parker.

Representatives of Justice for Woody, a group of area residents and friends of Woodward, have been circulating petitions in recent months in an effort to build grass-roots pressure on Dean to appoint an independent investigator.

Contacted Thursday, Mary Rives and Keith Carlson of Amherst, Mass., said the FBI investigation may go a long way to meet demands for an independent investigation.

Carlson said he was "cautious but optimistic" about the news.

"I have some healthy skepticism, but I feel a sense of relief that there will be more attention to this matter that it so deserves," Rives said.