How Force Science saved 2 "gun cops" from trial for murder
Force Science News
For the first time, a scientific reconstruction of how an unarmed suspect must have moved during a confrontation with police has been successfully introduced into the British criminal justice system, exonerating 2 officers who were facing murder charges after shooting the man dead.
The officers, who'd been accused of lying to cover up their "execution," were cleared after Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, convinced authorities that the only way the controversial shooting could have occurred was the way the officers said it did--when the suspect unexpectedly turned toward them, pointing what they reasonably believed was a sawed-off shotgun.
Before their release from prosecution, the officers had battled a devastating pall of suspicion for 2,212 days--6 long years--as they repeatedly but futilely protested their innocence of wrongdoing. The London press called the case "one of the most controversial police shootings of modern times."
"The officers faced the absolute ruin of their personal and professional lives," Lewinski told Force Science News. "Conventional forensics could not help them--indeed, was used against them. It took an array of unique new scientific evidence to unravel what really happened in this situation.
"This case is a perfect illustration of how the findings from FSRC's studies can be critical in discovering the truth in complex, emotionally charged, high-profile police shootings. It shows why we need to blend forensics and other sciences in these investigations."
The challenging case began simply enough. On the evening of Sept. 22, 1999, after a day of pub-crawling, a 46-year-old grandfather and unemployed painter/decorator named Henry (Harry) Stanley was hoisting a final few at a watering hole in east London. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear, at least one other person there got the impression that Stanley was a dangerous character.
This individual called police and reported that the suspect was inviting people to join him for his "last meal" and, the tipster believed, carrying a "sawn-off shotgun" inside a long, blue plastic bag he had with him. Later, news reports would allude to Stanley being mistaken for an "Irish terrorist," although the informant said only that he spoke "with an Irish accent."
Insp. Neil Sharman, then 35, and Cst. Kevin Fagan, 32 at the time, were dispatched to investigate. They were members of the elite SO19. the forearms unit of London's Metropolitan Police ("gun cops," in the jargon of the English media).
At about 7:55 p.m. they spotted Stanley near a T intersection on the route between the pub and his home. Tests later would show that his BAC was more than double the legal limit for drivers. He was plodding along a narrow sidewalk, residences behind a wooden fence on his right, parked cars on his left.
His right hand gripped the telltale blue bag.
Tactically separated, with Fagan on the sidewalk and Sharman to his left in the street, partially behind the cover of a parked car, the officers approached Stanley from the rear, Glock 9mm pistols pointed at him. From a distance of about 20 feet, Fagan shouted: "Armed police! Armed police!"
According to the officers, Stanley turned to his left 180 degrees in a "slow, deliberate, fluid motion" and faced them with his feet in a "boxer stance." The blue bag, tucked into his right hip, was pointed toward Fagan, and Stanley was moving his left hand toward it, potentially to brace the barrel of the shotgun presumed to be inside for firing.
Sharman and Fagan discharged their pistols almost simultaneously, each squeezing off a single round. The next thing they remembered when questioned later was seeing Stanley fall to the sidewalk, facing away from them. He'd been killed by a bullet to the head from Sharman's gun. In addition, the round from Fagan's Glock had struck him in the left hand.
Problem was, the fatal slug entered the left rear quadrant of his head near his ear and exited the right at a slightly upward angle, ultimately grazing a wooden fence. The penetration pattern indicated he'd been shot while his back was to the officers, not (as they insisted) as he was facing them.
Moreover, there was no sawed-off shotgun. What Stanley had in the blue bag was a wooden coffee table leg that he was taking home after his brother had repaired it.
London's tabloid press kicked into hysterical hyper-drive. Stanley was lionized as a loving husband and father of 3 and as a kindly grandfather, a conscientious citizen temporarily down on his luck without a job. All but unmentioned was his sheet of convictions for armed robbery, grievous bodily harm and possession of drugs and the fact that he was believed to have used a sawed-off shotgun in at least one of his crimes.
Sharman and Fagan, who insisted that they acted in perceived self-defense, were widely regarded as liars, trying to weasel out of an unjustified slaying that had been prompted by malice, overexcitement or grievous misjudgment.
According to protocol, an independent agency, police for the city of Surrey, were assigned to investigate the shooting. In June, 2000, Surrey submitted its findings to the Crown Prosecution Service (akin to an American office of the district attorney or state's attorney).
After a review of the evidence, the CPS advised that there was "insufficient evidence to bring any criminal charges against the police officers involved."
However, a dogged family attorney and a quirk in the British legal system that allows for repeated fresh reviews of such matters kept the case cooking. In all as the months and years after the shooting dragged on, there were a total of 2 police investigations, 2 inquests, 3 referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service and 3 judicial reviews.
In October last year , more than 5 years after Stanley's death, an inquest jury returned a verdict of "unlawful killing," and the CPS decided once again to review the case. This raised the specter that before the seemingly unquenchable furor was over Sharman and Fagan might yet wind up behind bars.
At this time, about one-third of the 400 officers assigned to SO19 handed in their firearms authorizations and effectively went on strike in protest.
Last January ['05] the case seemed suddenly to take another sharp turn for the worse. In re-sifting evidence from the shooting, investigators discovered that the stiff canvas jacket Stanley was wearing the night he was killed had 2 bullet holes in the top of the left shoulder. Incredibly, this "significant forensic evidence" had been overlooked in all the prior raking over of the case!
Now it was concluded that these holes had been made by a single bullet--Sharman's bullet--boring through puckered fabric on its way to Stanley's skull, further confirming that his back had been turned toward the officers when he was shot.
Colleagues were growing increasingly concerned about the physical and mental health of the 2 gun cops. From the beginning they'd been stripped of their armed-police assignment and demoted to duty without a firearm. As the case wore on, their personal relationships were badly battered by the severe strain of their predicament. As one observer noted, the officers unremittingly suffered "a veritable lifetime of stress, heartache, sleepless nights, anger, frustration, wasted job opportunities--and doubt."
Whenever a London officer is involved in a shooting, the police union, the London Metropolitan Police Federation, assigns a representative to act as a "friend" to the officer and accompany him or her through whatever ordeals may arise in the aftermath. Cst. Mark Williams, a firearms instructor, was the rep assigned to Sharman and Fagan. Later another firearms trainer, Cst. Dave Blocksidge, joined in to assist.
As the bad news piled up, Blocksidge began surfing the Internet for information on critical incidents and their impact on officers. Besides hoping to find research that could aid Sharman and Fagan in coping with the emotional toll of their shooting, he sought data on how a life-threatening event might affect memory. If he could find evidence that memory gaps or distortions can result from high-stress encounters, that might at least offer some counter to the claim that the 2 officers were deliberately lying in their version of the shooting.
Blocksidge's searches eventually led him to the work of Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a former psychologist with the Portland (OR) Police Bureau, co-author of the book Deadly Force Encounters, and renowned for her studies of the impact of critical incidents on sensory and cognitive perceptions--including the effect on memory.
As they exchanged emails, Artwohl, who's on the National Advisory Board for the Force Science Research Center, suggested that Blocksidge get in touch with Lewinski and explore his ground-breaking findings about action-reaction times, movement of suspects and officers during lethal confrontations and other physical and mental dynamics of armed encounters.
Lewinski's studies at FSRC, she explained, have been instrumental in resolving a wide variety of puzzling and controversial police shootings from coast to coast in the US and have led to the exoneration of numerous officers accused of criminal behavior or civil liability because their uses of deadly force were misunderstood and/or poorly investigated.
Late last May, Blocksidge, Williams and 3 other Federation representatives traveled to Mankato, MN, for an exclusive 3-day seminar on Artwohl's and Lewinski's work conducted by the two doctors along with Dr. William Hudson, the Deputy Director of the Force Science Research Center, and attorney William Everett, a member of the Center's National Advisory Board.
During the visit, they briefed Lewinski on what was known about the troublesome Stanley case.
"I will never forget the day as long as I live," Williams later told a British police publication. "We were having a cup of tea in Bill's kitchen. I was explaining the details of the shooting, and Bill just smiled. Then he demonstrated what he felt had happened."
Based on his extensive studies of human movement, Lewinski suggested that Cst. Fagan's bullet hit Stanley first, striking fingers of his left hand. Recoiling immediately and instinctively, the suspect most likely flung his arm up and simultaneously turned away from the source of the pain (Fagan's gun), Lewinski believed. This positioned him so that Insp. Sharman's close-following round then struck him in the back of the head.
Optimistic, the delegates had scarcely returned to England before the CPS dropped a disheartening bombshell. Originally having deemed the case against the 2 officers too weak to prosecute, the Service, after conferring with Surrey authorities, now dramatically reversed itself--5 years and 9 months after the incident.
Sharman and Fagan were arrested by Surrey police on suspicion of murder, gross negligence manslaughter, perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The officers were released on bail, and their defense team was granted time to pursue new evidence.
Lewinski was quickly engaged by the Police Federation in hopes his theory of the shooting could be documented scientifically. "The British courts are very picky about outside experts," he says. "It was important that I approach this as a neutral scientist, not as a police advocate."
During the next several weeks, which included 2 trips to London, Lewinski objectively reviewed the case's myriad reports and photos and the forensic evidence, particularly Stanley's bullet-punctured jacket.
He interviewed Sharman and Fagan extensively; monitored them walking through a meticulous reconstruction of the shooting; employed highly sophisticated laser photography to pinpoint precisely everyone's position, angulation and movement; and worked with FSRC National Advisory Board member Parris Ward to construct a computerized animation of what he determined had actually occurred on the fateful night the officers and the "shotgun" suspect came together.
Synthesizing the available evidence with findings from FSRC studies of subject movement, Lewinski eventually drew these conclusions:
1. The lineup of the bullet holes in the shoulder of Stanley's jacket with those in his head showed that his left arm had to be raised up with his head thrust strongly forward and his face turned away at the time Sharman's fatal shot impacted. "That was the only configuration that would allow for the jacket to be bunched up and for the bullet to pass through it and through the head without wounding Stanley's shoulder," Lewinski told Force Science News.
2. The arm's extended position had to have been "very elevated and unusual," and the rest of the body "very unbalanced." This was not a position the suspect would have been in when turning toward the officers or when pointing a shotgun, "nor is it a normal position for someone to be in when simply walking away," Lewinski explained.
Consequently, he concluded that this was a "transition position"-a single, microsecond frame in "a more extensive, rapid and violent reaction," a "frozen point in time" that coincided with the passage of Sharman's bullet.
3. What provoked the reaction was what he had speculated in his kitchen: Fagan's round hitting Stanley's left hand. "A usual reaction to a shot in the hand is an immediate and rapid reaction of moving the hand away from the cause of the pain," Lewinski stated. He calls this "the withdrawal reflex."
With the suspect facing the officers at the time Fagan fired, as they said he was, the left arm would have been thrown up and the head would have tried to turn toward the right, just as the trajectory of Sharman's subsequent shot suggested had occurred.
4. The fact that the head did not move any farther to the right than it did during this instinctive reaction further indicated to Lewinski that the trunk of the suspect's body was indeed facing Fagan when the officers fired.
From his studies he knew that in turning from a front-facing position, Stanley's rising arm would have moved fastest. The slower-moving torso, hips and legs would have impeded the full movement of Stanley's head, causing it to be jammed against the left arm, consistent with its position when hit by Sharman's round. But if the suspect had been facing away from the officers when first shot, his head could--and most likely would--have rapidly moved in a much broader range.
5. Not enough time elapsed between Fagan's shot and Sharman's shot for Sharman to realize that the wounded Stanley was turning away and no longer presenting a presumed threat.
Neighborhood witnesses said they heard 2 shots that night, extremely close together, detectable individually. "Auditory research has shown that shots just 1/10 of a second apart can be distinguished separately," Lewinski says. Even supposing that Fagan's and Sharman's shots were as much as 1/3 of a second apart-more than 3 times the minimum for distinguishability--that would not have been long enough for Sharman to perceive the change of circumstances and forestall firing. "Research in cognitive psychology proves that no one could have caught that movement before the second gun went off," Lewinski emphasizes.
"In this visually complex, rapidly evolving, dynamic shooting situation," where the officers thought their lives at risk, there was simply not enough time to observe and process Stanley's rapid hand, arm, head and body movement, Lewinski concluded. Indeed, it is likely that the entire shooting was over is no more than 17/100 seconds.
6. Finally, he stated, "research substantiates the inability to see anything other than what a person is focused on" in a dynamic event. What the 2 officers were focused on was the threat that Stanley's blue plastic package seemed to present. This further explains their failure to note his movement away from them once the shooting started. Not noting it, they "therefore could not have reported" it in their description of the encounter.
Bottom line of the detailed analysis that Lewinski submitted in mid-September to the CPS: The suspect "was fully facing the officers" when they reacted to his apparent threat and shot at him. Lewinski considered this to be "unequivocal"-the only determination that could be supported scientifically.
What was not included in his report was Lewinski's private speculation that this was a suicide-by-cop case. A relative had told police earlier in the investigation that Stanley had recently undergone surgery for cancer and "wanted to die." He allegedly had talked specifically about setting himself up "to be shot by police marksmen." The relative "seemed a credible witness," police said, but they were unable to corroborate his claims.
After carefully reviewing Lewinski's report, the CPS finally reached the decision that the London police world had been tensely awaiting. On Oct. 20, prosecutors announced that they would not proceed further against Sharman and Fagan. "We have concluded," said the formal announcement, "that the threat which [the officers] believed they faced made the use of fatal force reasonable in the circumstances….The [new] forensic evidence…precludes showing…that the officers' accounts were lies." Given the circumstances, there was no "realistic prospect of conviction" for any of the accusations against them.
Although Stanley's "devastated" widow has vowed to find ways to keep the case going, including appealing to European courts on grounds of a human rights violation, Sharman and Fagan told reporters that they were "thrilled" at the CPS's decision and "very grateful that a huge weight has been lifted" from their shoulders. Both continue on the force. Sharman is a Senior Officer in a London borough and Fagan is currently undergoing SWAT training.
Mark Williams told Force Science News: "The painstaking research by Dr. Lewinski and his team has helped to ensure that justice was delivered in this horrific case. The officers and their families had all but reached a dead end. It seemed that no one wanted to believe them, until we discovered the FSRC."
Lewinski told FSN that he considers this case to complete a circle in his life. "Since I was a kid," he recalls, "I've been hooked on Sherlock Holmes. His deductive reasoning and application of scientific thought are what first got me hooked on trying to understand human behavior and crime. Now with this case I've been able to bring the latest in law enforcement science back to Holmes' home territory."
NOTE: If you'd like to read another account of this shooting and its aftermath, check out the recent article "Bulletproof" from the U.K.'s "Police" magazine.