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Thursday, February 07, 2002 - 12:00:00 AM MST
Woodward cops placed on desk duty
By TOM MARSHALL
BRATTLEBORO -- Acting on a request from the police department's union, town officials have placed the two officers who shot Robert Woodward on administrative duty pending the investigation into his death.
"They are not out on patrol," said Town Manager Jerry Rem-illard on Wednesday. "The union was very adamant, as the town is, that this is no reflection on the officers or the ongoing investigation."
Also Wednesday, Attorney General William Sorrell said he planned to meet with Woodward's family members on Feb. 15 in Brattleboro, but said they would not be given evidence they had sought in a civil suit filed against the town and its officers.
Woodward, 37, died on Dec. 2 after veteran officers Marshall Holbrook and Terrance Parker shot him seven times. The Bellows Falls resident, described by friends and family as a peaceful man with no history of mental illness, had burst into the All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church before at least a dozen witnesses, shouting for protection from the government and threatening to kill himself with a knife.
The officers returned to limited duty with partners 10 days after the incident, with acting Chief of Police John Martin asserting they had not violated the department's policy on the use of deadly force.
Remillard said the union's request to put Holbrook and Parker back on desk duty was made on Jan. 31, and was granted a day later. He said they might still be seen doing errands around town, would not be in uniform, and were still authorized to carry their service revolvers.
Detective Sgt. Joe Pineau, local representative to the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said the recommendation was made out of concern for the officers' well-being. "It relieves them of the pressure of being outside," he said. "It was simply because we wanted to give them time to release pressure, a time out from the pressure."
Much of that pressure came from what he described as unrelenting criticism in the Reformer's letter box.
"The constant reading of the barrage of letters from the 2 percent of the population or the 1 percent of the population was bothering them. They're human beings, just like everyone else." he said. "They felt like they were always in the limelight."
And he said the union position should not be interpreted as a lack of faith in the officers. "From our point of view they have done nothing wrong," Pineau said. "We have to suspend final judgment until such time as the final reports come in. (But) we feel confident that our officers abided by policy and also did the right thing at the time."
A lawyer for the IBPO in Springfield, Mass., would not say whether the national office had recommended the move, terming such communications "privileged information." But Michael Salvon said his staff would continue to provide a layer of legal support for the officers. "We've been involved right from the beginning."
On Jan. 21, the Woodward family filed a wrongful death suit against the town and both officers, alleging negligence and an unconstitutional use of force, and demanding the production of evidence including autopsy reports and emergency communications. Attorneys said they would happily sign a confidentiality agreement to gain such information, and said the family wanted only to know the truth about their son's death.
Brattleboro attorney Thomas Costello said Wednesday that state officials had missed a Feb. 1 deadline to respond to subpoenas for emergency 911 tapes, autopsy reports, and evidence from the state police investigation currently under review by Attorney General William Sorrell.
"They did not show up," he said, adding that he had received letters of refusal from the attorney general's office. He has since filed a motion in Windham Superior Court to compel emergency dispatchers, medical examiner, and Department of Public Safety to produce the evidence.
Sorrell said his refusal was based on solid legal principles. "We're saying this is an active case. We're citing case law why, legally and practically, turning over information while an investigation is ongoing is something not to be done."
Even releasing autopsy reports -- something State's Attorney Dan Davis gave orally to the family before removing himself from the case over a potential conflict of interest -- could prejudice an investigation, Sorrell said.
"There's frequently information in an autopsy that only someone who conducted an autopsy or was present would know," he said, citing the example of a witness who might claim a victim was shot in the head when the autopsy revealed only shots to the abdomen.
Davis confirmed on Jan. 21 that preliminary autopsy results showed Woodward died from a bullet that entered the abdomen, striking vital organs, but that another bullet entered the right side of his back and lodged in the spinal cord.
Sorrell said he had received numerous calls from Windham County residents asking about the investigation, and wanted to ease concerns by explaining how his review might progress.
"I actually spent the entire day yesterday with these two very thick binders we received from the state police," he said. "(On Friday) we will have our first meeting together with several people who have been independently reviewing the investigation."
By the end of February, Sorrell said, he would be able to decide on the next step and set a timeline. If a grand jury were to be impaneled he would likely preside over it in person, along with Assistant Attorneys General Matt Levine and Cindy Maguire, head of the criminal division.
"If we were to call a grand jury, the issue would not be whether excessive force was used, but whether a crime was committed," he said, reciting possible crimes from murder to involuntary manslaughter. "It's whether the police conduct was reasonable and lawful in the situation, or whether there was a violation of the state's criminal statutes in their interaction with Mr. Woodward."
Police training standards might or might not come up, Sorrell added. But the question of justifiable self-defense might well be considered, given substantial case law that provides for the use of force when the life of an officer or bystander is threatened. "The questions are reasonableness, the imminence of threat."
Grand jurors could ask for whatever evidence or testimony they wanted, he said, and hearsay testimony could be admitted. But he added that jurors typically appreciated a prosecutor's efforts to sift out useful testimony from repetitious details, and said the relative rarity of grand jury proceedings in Vermont helped assure their integrity.
"If there is a suspicion in some case that grand jurors were being denied information," Sorrell said, "that would be an abuse of the process."