Brattleboro church shooting unjustified, friends say
By Emily Stone Free Press Staff Writer
BRATTLEBORO -- Supporters of the man killed by police in a West Brattleboro church last year issued a detailed report Tuesday saying police unnecessarily shot their distraught friend.
Robert "Woody" Woodward was shot seven times by Brattleboro police in December. Woodward had entered the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church just before services, spoke agitatedly to the congregation about being pursued by the government and then pulled out a knife and threatened to kill himself. Eighteen people were in the church when Woodward was shot.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell issued a report in April that said the two officers who fired were justified in using deadly force. Tuesday's report by a group called Justice for Woody arrived at a much different conclusion. Their report called Sorrell's findings a "a brilliantly crafted deception."
"Close inspection reveals Sorrell's report to be a carefully constructed facade resting on the foundation of the officers' accounts, buttressed by those carefully culled statements," from witnesses, the report's conclusion states.
Sorrell and Brattleboro Police Chief James Martin said the conclusions in this second report are unfounded.
Justice for Woody received copies of the witness and police accounts from Sorrell's office and used those to write their report. Their 40-page report and accompanying 32-page narrative of events, point to questions they believe remain unanswered.
These include whether Woodward was shot after falling to the ground from initial bullet wounds; whether he walked toward the officers with his knife or just motioned at them; and whether he was a risk to anyone in the church beside himself.
"At no time did he make threats to any of them," said Ursula Shea-Bornea, who helped prepare the report.
Sequence of events
The report says that Woodward, who said he was seeking sanctuary at the church, calmed down for a bit before police arrived. He was at the front of the church, with the knife in his pocket, when officer Marshall Holbrook arrived. The report says Holbrook had to ask who the subject was when he arrived at the church.
Two more officers then arrived, the report says. Woodward became agitated again and brought the knife out, the Justice for Woody report says. Sorrell's report says Woodward refused to drop the knife, and moved at the officers. That's when Holbrook and officer Terrence Parker fired.
The Justice for Woody report quotes witnesses who said Woodward did not move at police. It also quotes three witnesses who indicate that Woodward may have been shot again after he fell to the ground.
Sorrell and Chief Martin said this was not the case. Martin said the autopsy supports the officers' statement that Woodward was shot while standing. By law, the autopsy report has not been made public, but Sorrell said Woodward's family could release it if they wanted.
"If I thought Mr. Woodward was shot after he was down on the ground and wasn't resisting at all I can assure you that our report would have been much different," Sorrell said.
The writers of both reports claim that the other picked and chose from the witness statements that most suited their desired conclusion.
"We approached it with an open mind," Sorrell said. His office was up front about conflicting witness statements, he said. Their conclusions were based on the weight of evidence. "It wasn't result driven."
Woodward's friends said they were similarly open-minded.
"Certainly we are not unbiased in this," said report co-author Paul Bornea. "Did this cloud our ability to investigate this and critique the attorney general's report? I don't think so."
About 35 of Woodward's friends and supporters gathered to hear the report's unveiling.
Many nodded along with the speakers or shook their head vehemently when the speakers quoted police statements they didn't like.
They remembered Woodward as a compassionate, intelligent friend who was an excellent listener.
Ellen Berrios drove up from Boston for Tuesday's event. She knew Woodward for about a dozen years and said she owed it to her friend to be there.
"He would have done it for me," she said, wiping tears away from under her glasses. "Woody is the most loyal friend I ever had."
Polly Wilson didn't know Woodward. She witnessed the shooting and said she has gotten to know Woodward through his friends and family only after his death.
She said the police used "excessive force" against Woodward. She and her husband talk about what they could have done to save Woodward. Her husband suggested that they should have formed a human chain around Woodward to protect him.
"I feel personally responsible for not having done enough to prevent what happened," Wilson said. A group of women, including Woodward's sister, then moved over to Wilson to console her and assure her that there was nothing she could have done.
Contact Emily Stone at 660-1898 or email@example.com