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Woodward friends question official account of shooting

By David Gram, Associated Press, 9/24/2002 20:04

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) Supporters of Robert Woodward said in a report issued Tuesday that Brattleboro police failed adequately to assess the situation before entering a church where Woodward had disrupted a service and shooting him.

The group Justice For Woody also questioned findings by Vermont's attorney general that Woodward charged an officer with a knife before he was shot, and that he confessed and apologized en route to the hospital.

Woodward, 37, who grew up in Bozrah, Conn., was shot seven times by Brattleboro officers Terrence Parker and Marshall Holbrook in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church in West Brattleboro on Dec. 2.

Authorities and witnesses said he entered the church in a highly agitated state, said the government was out to torture and kill him, and that he was armed with a knife.

Attorney General William Sorrell's office concluded in April that the officers' actions were justified because they believed they were ''in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.''

Sorrell defended that finding on Tuesday. ''I have not seen the (Justice For Woody) report,'' he told the Brattleboro Reformer. ''In our report we clearly had a section on the different witness recollections. We tried to accommodate the inconsistencies as much as possible, but it was impossible to do.

''So if the group that put out their report wishes to focus or emphasize other comments or statements made, that's certainly their right,'' he continued. ''We stand by our report.''

Justice For Woody leaders have vehemently contended since shortly after the shooting that they don't believe the shooting was justified.

In their report Tuesday, they sought to point up what they said were shortcomings in the attorney general's investigation.

Rather than reinterviewing witnesses, they said, they relied on the 18 witness statements released by the attorney general shortly after he announced his findings, the tape transcript of a phone call to 911 emergency dispatchers and other official documents.

Stephen Monroe Tomczak of Wallingford, Conn., a member of Justice for Woody, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the statements.

The critics' report said the officers got information from an emergency dispatcher that exaggerated the threat posed by Woodward. And it said they failed to consult with people at the scene on first arriving before entering the sanctuary.

''We know that the police arrived at the scene believing that a hostile suspect was threatening a church full of people with a knife,'' said the report, which elsewhere quoted several witnesses as saying Woodward never threatened anyone but himself.

''What we don't know is why they did not appear to take stock of the situation at the moment of their arrival, and use their impressions to determine the most appropriate response,'' the report said.

After reviewing the witness statements, the Justice For Woody report authors also said they found two patterns: Of all the eyewitnesses in the church, only the three officers contended that Woodward charged at them with the knife. The report quoted several church members as saying Woodward did not do that.

And it said only officials involved in the incident, including members of the ambulance crew, heard Woodward acknowledge making an ''assault'' on the police, apologizing and saying he wanted the police to shoot him.

None of the three police directly involved in the incident said in interviews on the day of the shooting that Woodward had used the words ''assault'' or ''apologize,'' the report said. That story developed later.

''It is concerning that the longer after Dec. 2 an official's statement was taken, the more likely the word `assault' is to appear in their recollection of Woodward's last words,'' the report said.

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