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
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
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
firearms 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
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
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.
You can review the animation at:
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
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
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
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
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