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Shooting Report Clears Police; Man with Knife Hit 7 Times

April 02, 2002
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Shooting Report Clears Police; Man with Knife Hit 7 Times

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell holds a knife, similar to the one held by Robert "Woody" Woodward when he was shot by two Brattleboro police officers, during a news conference at the Brattleboro, Vt. municipal offices on Tuesday. Sorrell announced that his office's investigation had determined the shooting was legally justified. Woodward, 37, had disrupted a Sunday service at All Souls Unitarian-Univeralist Church in Brattleboro on Dec. 2 by going before the congregation, saying government agencies were trying to kill him, asking for political sanctuary and threatening himself with a small knife.(AP Photo/Matthew Cavanaugh)

The Vermont attorney general's office has concluded that two police officers in Brattleboro acted correctly last year when they fired seven bullets into a highly agitated man who burst into a church for sanctuary during services and ignored the officers' commands to drop his pocket knife.

At a news conference in Brattleboro yesterday, Attorney General William Sorrell said the death of Robert Woodward, "although tragic, was legally justified."

Sorrell's announcement officially capped an investigation that began on Dec. 2 after Woodward charged into All Souls Unitarian Church and was shot by police as parishioners looked on in horror.

Now that the case has been concluded, Sorrell added, he hoped that those who had been touched by Woodward's death "can move forward to a better place."

But critics immediately challenged his conclusions. Friends of Woodward, who attended the news conference, shouted "Shame on you!" at the attorney general for his findings, and others later questioned why police opened fire instead of using other nonlethal tactics like pepper spray or plastic bullets to bring Woodward under control. That question, they said, is likely to come up in a civil suit that Woodward's parents have filed against the police.

One friend, Keith Carlson of Amherst, said the decision not to prosecute the officers, Marshall Holbrook and Terrance Parker, is "a complete miscarriage of justice."

Mary Hunt, a 21-year member of the church who witnessed the shooting, said the conclusion that lethal force was justified "is simply wrong."

"I was there," she said. Woodward, she added, "wasn't threatening anyone. Brattleboro is as divided as ever over this thing."

Experiencing what Sorrell termed "an extreme pyschotic episode," according to the investigation, Woodward burst into the Sunday morning service just after 10 a.m., saying he was seeking asylum from the government. The 37-year old youth worker had no criminal or mental health history, friends would later say.

When parishioners realized what was happening and headed for the exits, witnesses said, Woodward unfolded a pocket knife and threatened to kill himself if the exodus continued. Police confronted Woodward and tried to get him to surrender, but shot him when he wouldn't drop the knife.

Eyewitnesses disagreed on whether Woodward had lunged at police, but the investigation concluded he did; one of the bullets hit the man in the back, according to the attorney general's report.

A rescue squad member who administered first aid to Woodward is quoted in the report as saying he told him: "Please tell the officer I assaulted that I did not want to hurt him. I would not have harmed him. I just wanted him to shoot me." Woodward died in surgery about four hours later.

Following fitness evaluations, Holbrook and Parker - who have about 20 years' service between them - were back on the job about two weeks after the shooting.

By David Arnold, The Boston Globe

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