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Friends criticize shooting probe

September 25, 2002

By SUSAN SMALLHEER Southern Vermont Bureau

BRATTLEBORO — Friends of Robert Woodward charged Tuesday that Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell’s investigation of the police shooting last December was biased and a “whitewash” of Brattleboro police misconduct.

The group, Justice for Woody, presented its six-month report into the shooting of Woodward, saying that Sorrell was selective in his investigation, and chose only those statements that agreed with the police officers’ version of what happened.

“Close inspection reveals Sorrell’s report to be a carefully constructed façade resting on the foundation of the officers’ accounts, buttressed by those carefully culled statements,” the lengthy report concluded.

The report also points out that only the three police officers said Woodward, who was holding a knife with a 3 1/2-inch blade to his face, charged at Officer Terrance Parker. The police officers said it was that action by Woodward that forced them to fire.

Woodward, 37, a teacher and social worker who lived in Bellows Falls, died Dec. 2 after he was shot seven times by two Brattleboro police officers after he went to the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in a highly agitated state, seeking sanctuary. He claimed he was being pursued by the CIA and the FBI because of his environmental activism, and threatened to kill himself if church members didn’t listen to him.

His death has had a profound effect on Brattleboro, with many people supporting the police, and others saying the police overreacted and should have tried to negotiate with Woodward.

Sorrell investigated the shooting and released his report in April, saying the police were justified in shooting Woodward because they feared for their lives.

Most church members, the Justice for Woody report points out, didn’t report any charging movement by Woodward and, in fact, some said he was “backing up.”

The group said three witnesses of the shooting believed that officers continued to shoot Woodward as he lay on the floor of the sanctuary.

Justice for Woody members said they believed that the most serious accusation against police involved the allegation Woodward was shot as he lay on the floor.

“They did not pursue evidence of wrongdoing,” said Paul Borneo of Shutesbury, Mass., a long-time friend of Woodward, who went by the nickname “Woody.”

They cited statements made by church members Tommy Thomas, Janis Chaillou and Dr. Phyllis Woodring as supporting their belief.

Thomas, who has since died, said he remembered shots being fired after Woodward fell. Chaillou, in a chronology written the day of the shooting, wrote that she, too, heard shots after Woodward fell.

Woodring, an anesthesiologist and church member, said in a statement that she saw a bullet still lodged in Woodward’s left torso after he was shot when she tried to help him.

Woodward’s friends said that was proof he was on the floor when he was shot.

The report, which is based on the same interviews conducted by the Vermont State Police and Sorrell’s office, came to a vastly different conclusion — that Officers Terrance Parker and Marshall Holbrook were not justified when they shot Woodward seven times within a minute of entering the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in West Brattleboro.

Woodward died about four hours later at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., from the wounds he received.

Sorrell, contacted later Tuesday in Montpelier, said his report acknowledged there were conflicting and contradictory statements from the 18 church members who remained in the church at the time of the shooting.

“We tried our best to try and reconcile the conflicting statements,” he said.

“We were acting as factfinders and we found facts as best we could,” he said, acknowledging there were versions “180 degrees opposite” each other.

He said the three police officers declined to be interviewed by his office. Sorrell said the police were the only key witnesses who declined to be interviewed, but he defended their action, saying they had undergone a “lengthy” interview by State Police shortly after the shooting.

But Sorrell said the ballistics tests did not support any claim that Woodward was shot as he lay on the floor.

Brattleboro Police Chief John Martin also said that the information he received about Woodward’s wounds did not support that theory. Martin said he hadn’t seen the test results, but had been told about them. The police chief said he had seen Woodward after he was shot at the church, and his wounds did not appear that way either.

Sorrell said autopsy results about Woodward’s wounds had been released to his family, but that it was a “matter of privacy” and his office would not release that information.

Woodward’s parents, Paul and Joanne Woodward, of Bozrah, Conn., and Woodward’s sister Jill are suing the police officers and the town of Brattleboro, saying Woodward’s civil rights were violated.

Jill Woodward attended the press conference Tuesday at the Quality Inn, but she said she hadn’t read the report and didn’t know if she agreed with the findings. She did contradict a claim by one group member, who said Woodward’s body was “incinerated without his family’s consent.” She said her brother was cremated at her family’s wish.

Thomas Costello of Brattleboro, the attorney for the Woodward family, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mary Rives of Amherst, Mass., another long-time friend of Woodward’s, closed the 2 1/2-hour press conference with a verbal portrait of Woodward.

“We hope to contribute to the healing process,” she said.

But Police Chief Martin said the shooting remained raw, not only for Parker and Holbrook who are back at full duty, but also for his department and many people in town.

He said the civil lawsuit has kept the matter fresh, as residents are being called for depositions.

And Martin said his department has been unable to confirm that the Department of Justice is investigating the shooting, despite reports.

Residents of Brattleboro will meet tonight at Brattleboro Union High School to discuss community communications with the department, a dialogue started after the Woodward shooting. Martin said the meeting would not be about the shooting.

The group’s report is posted on its Web site: justiceforwoody.org.

Contact Susan Smallheer at susan.smallheer@rutlandherald.com.

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