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City to pay $3m in 2008 celebration death

Man was stricken after Celtics victory

David Woodman, 22, was subdued by police while walking to his Brookline home after attending a bar on the night of June 17, 2008. David Woodman, 22, was subdued by police while walking to his Brookline home after attending a bar on the night of June 17, 2008.
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / June 18, 2010

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The City of Boston has agreed to pay $3 million to the family of David Woodman, the 22-year-old college student who stopped breathing in police custody during a Celtics championship celebration exactly two years ago and later died.

The settlement was announced by the Woodman family and the city yesterday as an agreement that will avoid protracted court battles, but the family also saw it as acknowledgement of an untimely death for which the city has denied any wrongdoing.

“The city has properly accepted responsibility for David Woodman’s tragic death,’’ the family’s lawyer, Howard Friedman, said yesterday in a statement. He also said the settlement should trigger changes in department protocol, particularly in the ways it handles internal investigations.

Woodman, an Emmanuel College student, was subdued by police while walking to his Brookline home after visiting a bar on the night of June 17, 2008, when the Celtics won their last championship.

Police placed him under arrest for drinking in public, there was a struggle, and at one point he stopped breathing.

A medical examiner found that Woodman suffered brain damage because of the lack of oxygen, and that he had an arrhythmia, a disruption of the heart’s electrical activity. He was hospitalized and died after another arrhythmia 11 days later.

The Woodman family, which had called for the arresting officers to be held accountable and accused investigators of a coverup, said, “This is not a satisfactory resolution; rather it reflects our choice not to allow anger to affect our family any further.’’

The money will support a foundation in Woodman’s name serving educational programs for children and services for the homeless.

Boston police and separate investigations by Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and an independent panel found that Woodman may have stopped breathing for several minutes before officers realized his condition, but that his death was not a consequence of the struggle. He suffered from a preexisting heart condition and had surgery as an infant.

While the investigation by Conley and the independent panel, headed by former US attorney Donald Stern, found police protocols to be lacking, an independent cardiovascular specialist said that both of the arrhythmias resulted from Woodman’s heart abnormality, and that the second would have killed him, even if the first never occurred.

William Sinnott, Boston’s corporation counsel, said in a statement that “this resolution, in which there is no admission of liability by any party, is a fair and responsible resolution of this tragedy, avoids protracted and painful litigation, and in my opinion, is in the best interest of the City, the Woodman family, and the officers who were involved in his arrest.’’

The Police Department referred questions yesterday to Sinnott’s statement.

The settlement was the largest the city has reached in a wrongful death since agreeing in 2005 to pay a record-setting $5 million to the family of Victoria Snelgrove, the Emerson College student who was killed when a police officer fired a projectile into a surging crowd celebrating the 2004 Red Sox pennant win.

Woodman’s death also highlighted the Police Department’s difficulties in controlling celebratory crowds after sports championships. Months before Snelgrove was killed, a drunk driver on Symphony Road plowed through a crowd celebrating the 2004 New England Patriots Super Bowl victory and struck and killed 21-year-old James Grabowski.

Thomas Drechsler, a police union lawyer who represented eight of the nine officers involved in the Woodman arrest, said yesterday that the officers acted appropriately.

“The city had to make a decision [to settle], as it does in any case, and there are a lot of factors,’’ Drechsler said, “but it certainly does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by my clients.’’

The settlement was reached on the second anniversary of Woodman’s death. No lawsuit was ever filed.

Witnesses told investigators that Woodman was walking with friends at Fenway and Brookline Avenue when he commented on the large police presence, saying, “Wow, it seems there’s a lot of crime on this corner.’’

Police, who realized Woodman was carrying a plastic cup, ordered him to stop. When he did not, several officers brought him to the ground.

Investigators later received differing accounts: Police said Woodman clung to a wrought-iron fence, flailed his arms, and that they brought him to the ground to handcuff him. Witnesses told investigators that officers slammed Woodman to the ground.

The independent review by Stern found gaps in police protocol: None of the arresting officers wrote a report because they were brought to a hospital for stress, and it could have been several minutes before officers discovered Woodman was not breathing.

Still, Stern found that the missteps did not cause Woodman’s death.

Sara Wunsch, a staff lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said Stern’s investigative report raised several questions with police protocol and the ensuing investigation.

“This was a very tragic event that didn’t need to happen like this, and the settlement shows the Police Department understood they did some things wrong here,’’ Wunsch said.

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.

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