Part 2 of a 2-part series
[Ed.’s Note: Inv. Tim Robertson of the Darlington County (SC) SO stands charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter after fatally shooting an ex-con fugitive who tried to snatch his gun. Although Robertson insists the offender, William Sheffield, presented a frontal threat when Robertson made the decision to shoot him, an autopsy showed 4 rounds entered Sheffield’s back. You can read Part 1 here: http://www.policeone.com/officer-shootings/articles/1186508 ]
Freed on a $15,000 surety bond, Robertson was allowed to continue working on administrative paperwork assignments at his SO, with the full support of that agency. He’d given officials there a copy of his statement, and they believed it. “The contact I had with people at the office helped keep my spirits up,” Robertson told Force Science News.
Meantime, as a member of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Assn. he was entitled to free legal representation. The association’s general counsel, Vinton “Dee” Lide, a former U.S. attorney and assistant state attorney general and an experienced warhorse on behalf of officers involved in fatal shootings, took the case. He was assisted by James Redfearn as co-counsel.
Lide agreed wholeheartedly with the decision that had been made in the ER to delay preparation of a formal statement until Robertson had a chance to recover from the stress of the shooting. He was aware, for example, that memory of an intense event tends to be more complete and accurate after at least one sleep cycle, as FSN has pointed out in various past transmissions on modern psychological research. So he recommends waiting to officers he represents on behalf of the association.
Both Lide and Steve Smith, a well-known private investigator and retired state police major who volunteered his time to help, had heard of the ground-breaking work done at the Force Science Research Center by executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski on the dynamics of shot-in-the-back situations. Lide engaged Lewinski as a pretrial consultant, with the intent of calling him to testify as an expert witness when Robertson’s case went before a jury earlier this month [10/06].
Drawing on Robertson’s recollections, his own analysis of the full autopsy report, and his extensive studies of time and movement in lethal confrontations, Lewinski reached the following conclusions:
Of Robertson’s first 2 rounds, fired during the intense struggle near the pickup truck, one produced a grazing wound to suspect William Sheffield’s right shoulder and the other a penetrating path through his right shoulder blade at a very steep angle. Each trajectory traveled from back to front, left to right. These wounds were consistent with Sheffield facing Robertson in a threatening manner when Robertson made the decision to shoot, but then turning to flee before the rounds hit him.
At the second shooting site near the tractor shed, one round entered to the side and rear of Sheffield’s lower chest cage, traveling back to front, right to left, This round then angled up and blasted through the suspect’s heart. The other round slammed right into his lower spine and lodged there. Both had fatal capabilities. And both wounds, as before, were consistent in Lewinski’s opinion with Sheffield turning abruptly before the moments of impact.
The challenge, as always in such cases, was to convince a jury of laymen that a human being can turn fast enough to significantly change position between the times an officer decides to squeeze the trigger and the round actually hits.
When the case came to trial in the town of Chesterfield, Robertson, facing the possibility of 3 years to life in state prison, took the stand to at last publicly present his story of what happened. It was the first time the prosecution had heard his account. Lewinski testified for some 90 minutes and patiently laid out documentation from his studies that addressed the core of Robertson’s contentions.
The studies show, Lewinski explained, that for an average officer to shove a subject and fire 2 pistol rounds, as Robertson swore he had done in both struggles, could easily consume a minimum of 3/4 of a second. In that time, Lewinski stated, the average subject can make a 180-degree turn away from a forward-facing position in an effort to run.
Given the nature of Sheffield’s wounds, the “greatest probability” is that that’s what happened in this case and the shootings occurred as Robertson said, Lewinski testified. Because of the time it takes for a shooting officer to perceive and process a change in subject positioning and stop firing, Robertson could not have avoided placing rounds in Sheffield’s back once the suspect started to turn.
With physical demonstrations and lucid interpretations of highly detailed research data, Lewinski “got on the level any good juror could understand and explained how a back shot could be a ‘good’ shot,” Lide told FSN.
On Oct. 5, after 4 days of testimony, the case went to the jury. Relatives of Sheffield were reputed to have made a number of threats, including the vow that if Robertson was acquitted “someone is going to die in the courtroom.”
Circuit Judge John Hayes III, however, warned that no disruption would be tolerated. Anyone involved in an outbreak of any kind could expect a minimum of 6 months in jail, he declared. The courtroom was emptied and searched and all who came back in had to pass through a metal detector.
Less than 4 hours later, the 5 male and 7 female jurors returned their verdict: not guilty. Tim Robertson’s freedom and career in law enforcement had been saved.
“This is the biggest relief of my life,” said a tearful Robertson. “I think what I did was proper to defend myself. I’m just glad this is over so I can get back to work investigating crimes.”
Throughout the trial, Robertson’s sheriff, Glenn Campbell, and members of the SO had sat in the courtroom in a show of visible support. By contrast, the circuit solicitor (prosecutor) who initiated the case against him strolled into court on only 2 brief occasions, leaving the actual prosecution to 2 young assistants.
Afterward, one of them told the media, “According to the law, we did what we thought was right.” The solicitor himself merely acknowledged that the verdict was “not guilty.”
Speaking on behalf of the FSRC, Lewinski says: “We would never suggest that all officers are innocent of wrongdoing in fatal shootings. Just as there are some bad cops, there are some bad shootings. But part of our goal is to help investigators and prosecutors understand that what appears controversial often is not when judged in light of scientific principles.
“In fairness to all concerned, the best time for that assessment is during an investigation, not during a trial.”