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US attorney: Police role key in death probe

One officer faced prior suit; independent panel in place

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Shelley Murphy and Jeannie M. Nuss
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2008

US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan pledged yesterday to find out whether Boston police officers used excessive force against David Woodman, a 22-year-old former Emmanuel College student who stopped breathing after his arrest during the Celtics championship celebration last month and died 11 days later in the hospital.

At the same time, a lawyer who was tapped by the police commissioner to conduct an independent review of the circumstances surrounding Woodman's death said he has recruited two high-profile security consultants to help determine whether officers followed regulations.

The Globe has also learned that one of the nine officers involved in Woodman's arrest was accused of beating a man with a flashlight during a 2003 arrest, according to a lawsuit. The case was settled for $1,000, and an internal investigation cleared the officer, according to officials.

It is unclear what caused Woodman's death on June 29. Officials said they are awaiting autopsy results. Woodman, a Brookline resident, had a preexisting heart condition but lived an active life, his parents said.

His death has triggered reviews at several levels.

"We'll make sure the family knows that we are committed, and others are as well, to get to the facts as to what led to David's death," Sullivan said during a telephone interview. "I want to make it clear that no one is jumping to any conclusion that there was any wrongdoing, but it's important to look at all the facts."

Sullivan said that his office is teaming with the FBI to look into whether officers violated Woodman's civil rights, but that the review will not begin until after an investigation by Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and police homicide detectives is complete.

Donald K. Stern, who preceded Sullivan as US attorney and is now in private practice, will conduct the independent review. He said he enlisted two former law enforcement officials to assist him: Barry Mawn, who retired from the FBI in 2002 after 30 years that included stints as head of the Boston and New York offices of the FBI; and Nancy McGillivray, who was US marshal in Boston for nine years and worked for the agency 24 years before retiring in 2004.

"The goal is not only to figure out what happened that evening with this awful tragedy but to see if there are any lessons that can be learned which might assist the Boston Police Department in handling such situations in the future," said Stern, adding that he, Mawn, and McGillivray are all volunteering their services.

Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis has said he welcomes any outside review.

Woodman was walking home with four friends June 18 after watching the Celtics victory at a bar when they passed nine uniformed officers at the Fenway and Brookline Avenue. One of Woodman's friends, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said Woodman joked, "Wow, it seems like there's a lot of crime on this corner."

The friend said officers grabbed Woodman, who was carrying a plastic cup of beer, slammed him to the ground, and ordered his friends to leave or face arrest. Police allege Woodman struggled with officers. They charged him with public drinking and resisting arrest.

Police said they discovered that Woodman was not breathing sometime after 12:47 a.m. while he was handcuffed face down on the ground, immediately administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and called an ambulance. Woodman's parents, Cathy and Jeffrey of Southwick, have accused police of failing to get prompt medical attention.

One of the officers involved in Woodman's arrest, Dowayne Lewis, 34, was accused of repeatedly beating Terry Byner with a flashlight while arresting him in February 2003, according to the suit filed by Byner.

The suit, which also named a second officer, alleges that Lewis stormed Byner "like a complete madman wielding the footlong flashlight" and struck him repeatedly on the head. Byner said a second officer, Shawn Grant, pleaded with Lewis to stop.

Grant denied most of Byner's allegations, but admitted that he saw Lewis strike Byner with a flashlight and told him to stop, according to court filings.

Byner pleaded guilty to several charges as a result of the confrontation, including assault and battery on a police officer, according to court records.

William F. Sinnott, Boston's corporation counsel, said the city paid Byner $1,000 to settle the case.

Boston attorney Thomas Drechsler, who represents the patrolmen's union, said it is not unusual to settle cases with small payouts that cost less than taking the case to trial.

"It certainly doesn't signify there is any merit to the case; just the opposite would be true," Drechsler said.

Yesterday, Byner, 47, of Roxbury, said he settled because "it was just the principal; it wasn't the money."

Howard Friedman, a Boston lawyer who represents the Woodmans, said the allegations in Byner's lawsuit raise concerns about Lewis. "Using a flashlight to hit someone shouldn't happen. . . . If one of the other cops had to tell you to stop, then maybe you are going too far."

Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com.

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