Vermont Attorney General Clears State Trooper in Thetford Taser Death
Updated below with comment from the lawyer for Macadam Mason's partner, and from the Vermont State Police.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced Friday morning that no charges will be filed against David Shaffer, the state trooper who shot a Thetford man in the chest with a Taser in a June 20, 2012 incident. The man, 39-year-old Macadam Mason (pictured), died shortly thereafter as a direct result of the stun gun's electronic jolt, a New Hampshire medical examiner later determined.
"Under Vermont law, a police officer is entitled to use a reasonable amount of force to defend himself or herself or others if he or she reasonably believes that he or she or others are in immediate danger of bodily harm, that the use of force is necessary to avoid the harm, and that the amount of force used was reasonable under the circumstances," Sorrell said in a four-page written statement. The attorney general's review was to consider whether any criminal charges for assault or homicide were warranted against Shaffer.
Mason, who had a lifelong epileptic condition that would periodically impair his cognitive abilities, suffered such a seizure one day before the shooting. The following day, Mason called a mental health crisis line at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and told the operator that he planned to kill others and himself. State police were dispatched to Mason's Thetford home on a welfare check, where they confronted him in his front yard.
According to the AG's account of the standoff, Mason refused to comply with an order by Shaffer, who was pointing an M-4 rifle at him, to lie down on the ground and show his hands. Instead, the report reads, Mason remained standing, "used profanities and asked [Trooper] Shaffer to shoot him." The report further notes that Mason took "at least two steps" toward Shaffer and, when the two men were six to 10 feet apart, Shaffer deployed his Taser, striking Mason in his left chest and abdomen and delivering a single, five-second electric jolt.
Shaffer later told investigators that he believed Mason intended to physically assault him, as Mason was closing the distance between them. Schaffer also told investigators that he was unaware at the time that Mason had a chronic seizure condition.
Brattleboro Attorney Tom Costello, who is representing Mason’s life partner, Theresa Davidonis, in a wrongful death lawsuit against Shaffer and the Vermont State Police, did not immediately return a phone call from Seven Days seeking comment. That lawsuit, filed on July 24, 2012, alleges negligence, trespass and deliberate infliction of emotional distress.
But Allen Gilbert, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, expressed his disappointment and disgust with the attorney general's decision.
"It's hard to know when, if ever, criminal charges might be brought in a law enforcement shooting death," Gilbert said. "A trooper fired a weapon that killed a man. The weapon was used in a way that's contrary to the guidelines from the weapon's manufacturer. The stark fact of this case is that a Vermonter is dead who ought to be alive today."
Sorell has previously claimed that he has prosecuted more police officers than any previous state attorney general. But Gilbert could not recall a single case in which Sorrell, Vermont's longest serving AG, has ever brought charges against a cop for a shooting death.
Immediately after last summer's incident, disability-rights advocates and the ACLU of Vermont called for a moratorium on the use of Tasers. Acknowledging the "significant public interest" regarding the use of the stun guns as a law enforcement tool, Sorrell said in Friday's press release that he will convene a public forum on the issue. The discussion panel for that event will include Gilbert, Disability Rights Vermont executive director Ed Paquin, Sen. Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) and Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg).
Tom Costello, Brattleboro attorney representing Theresa Davidonis, Mason's life partner, wouldn't comment on the AG's decision not to bring charges when reached later Friday. But he expressed serious concerns about other statements in Sorrell's report. Costello, who also represented the family of Robert A. Woodward following his December 2, 2001 shooting death by police in Brattleboro's All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, sees both parallels and stark differences between the two incidents.
In the Woodward case, Costello notes, it was unclear to police whether Woodward, who was armed with a knife, waving it about and threatening people, was emotionally disturbed. In the case of Mason, who was not armed, Costello notes that Shaffer claims he didn’t know about Mason’s seizure condition. But just hours before Mason was killed, Costello says, police already knew that Mason was emotionally disturbed because of the nature of his call to the mental health crisis line.
"Shaffer had to be aware that this kid was terribly, terribly disturbed,” Costello argues. "What did the dispatcher tell Shaffer? That [Mason] wanted to be shot by a cop! What's that? That’s suicide by cop!”
Also later Friday afternoon, the Vermont State Police issued the following in a press release:
“We are reassured to learn of the Attorney General’s findings in the Thetford incident, involving a Vermont State Police trooper,” said Colonel Tom L’Esperance, Director of the Vermont State Police. “The actions of our troopers helped protect citizens in a highly dangerous and life threatening event. The difficult decision to use force is something that stays with our members, throughout their careers. And we will continue to provide support and training to our members, as needed.”
We continue to work with the mental health community to improve our training programs, and will continue to evaluate cases to enable the department to make meaningful decisions regarding the use of tasers.
Trooper David Shaffer is currently on paid administrative leave.
Any questions related to the criminal investigation or pending civil suit surrounding the incident in Thetford need to be addressed by the Office of the Attorney General. It would be inappropriate for the Vermont State Police or Department of Public Safety to comment, speculate, or otherwise discuss details of these cases.