Friday, June 2
BRATTLEBORO -- Witnesses to the police shooting of Robert Woodward in 2001 said they were relieved to learn a tentative settlement had been reached between the estate of Woodward and the town of Brattleboro.

Woodward, 37, of Bellows Falls, was shot and killed by two Brattleboro police officers after he disrupted a service at the All Soul's Unitarian-Universalist Church in West Brattleboro.

According to witnesses, Woodward, who they said was emotionally distraught, was threatening to commit suicide and was asking the congregants to give him protection from the government before he was shot.

"I certainly think it's overdue," said T. Hunter Wilson, a professor at Marlboro College, who produced a report that was critical of Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell's conclusion that the officers did not use excessive force when they shot Woodward.

"It's a shame the town has put the Woodwards through years of lawsuits when it was clear from the outset that this was unnecessary," said Wilson. "I hope it gives the Woodward family some peace."

"I was relieved that the family pursued it this far," said Heida Bredfeldt, who was in the church at the time of the shooting.

"It's a very decent conclusion to a very tragic death," said Bredfeldt, adding she, and the other witnesses, was traumatized by the incident.

"I can see this thing like it was yesterday," she said.


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But Sharry Manning, also a witness to the shooting, said she feels the town is settling just so the Woodward family will "stop harassing them."

"And I don't believe it shows any wrongdoing on behalf of the police," said Manning. "Sadly, this town has really been torn apart because of it and I don't think the family understands how much pain and trauma Robert Woodward caused when he walked into the church that day."

Many witnesses said the only person Woodward was threatening to harm was himself, and police only made matters worse when they entered the building. They said Woodward was calming down until police officers arrived.

The officers claimed Woodward had been waving a knife at them and did not respond to commands to drop the blade before he charged at them. Woodward died of gunshot wounds, after being shot seven times by the officers.

Officer Terrence Parker and former officer Marshall Holbrook were not only cleared of using excessive force by Sorrell. A U.S. District Court judge also ruled that Woodward did indeed pose a significant threat to the officers. Judge J. Garvin Murtha then dismissed the civil suit against the town and the two officers, but a district appeals court in New York City asked Murtha to reconsider his finding.

"Four witnesses gave sworn statements that Woodward made no advances or threatening moves toward the officers or any bystanders before he was shot," according to the appeals court decision. "The district court discounted these witnesses' accounts for unconvincing reasons."

In January, Murtha once again threw out the civil suit, saying despite the appeals court's finding, he found there was no evidence that Woodward's rights were violated nor was there evidence that officers used excessive force.

Woodward's family then appealed to a federal appeals court and had been awaiting a response when the tentative settlement was reached.

The attorney for the Woodward Estate, Joel Faxon, did not return a phone call for comment.

On Wednesday, Woodward's father Paul, told the Reformer his family was happy with the proposed settlement.

"We're happy to move on," he said. "It was a really atrocious situation."

Though he would not release the details of the agreement, he said the settlement was "substantial." He said after the family has deducted the legal costs from the settlement, the remainder will go to a charity in his son's name. 

"He worked with the handicapped, the retarded, the less fortunate his entire life," said Paul Woodward.

An attorneys for the town, Nancy Sheehan of McNeil, Leddy & Sheehan in Burlington, also would not release details of the agreement. Sheehan said Parker and Holbrook, as employees of the town, would be covered under the insurance policy that would pay out the settlement and would not be financially liable. She added that the settlement hasn't been finalized yet.

Edith Thomas, who left the chapel before the shooting at the request of the police, said if anything, she hopes the tragedy of the Woodward shooting will lead to better training for Brattleboro police officers.

"That's what we are hoping," said Thomas. "Something positive needs to come out of this."

Thomas said Woodward was agitated when he entered the church but had calmed down until police arrived.

"The minute they walked in, his emotions went back up," she said. "Training should come out of this suit. I'm just glad the Woodward family doesn't have to go through this anymore."

Brattleboro Police Chief John Martin said he had no comment on the tentative resolution, adding he would present a statement once the settlement was officially reached.

A spokesperson for the Brattleboro Selectboard also was not ready to comment on the proposed settlement.

"We are not making any comment at this time," said Jerry Remillard, Brattleboro's town manager.


Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at (802) 254-2311, ext. 277.