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State Police Officer Justified In Use Of Deadly Force

CONTACT: Matthew I. Levine, Assistant Attorney General, (802) 828-5512

September 14, 2012

Attorney General William H. Sorrell announced today that his office has completed a review of a police officer involved shooting incident that occurred on April 30, 2012, in Cambridge, Vermont. The office has concluded, as a matter of law, that Vermont State Police Tpr. Dustin Robinson was legally justified in the use of deadly force when he discharged his firearm at Jonathan Martel. The legal standard for the use of deadly force is whether the officer reasonably believed that he or a third party was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, and that deadly force was necessary to respond to that threat.

The incident began when homeowners at a residence in the Town of Johnson interrupted a suspect, later identified as Martel, committing a burglary. Martel fled the scene in a black VW Jetta with a Florida license plate, and the homeowners called 911 to report the incident. State and local police responded and the suspect vehicle was observed driving on VT Route 15 at a high rate of speed by a Lamoille County Deputy Sheriff. The Deputy pursued the vehicle until he eventually lost sight of it in the Town of Cambridge. A State Trooper later located the vehicle parked and unattended behind a residence on Iron Gate Road in Cambridge. Police officers then established a perimeter around several roads in the area, while a State Trooper with a police dog began to track the suspect into the woods from where he had left the vehicle.

Tpr. Robinson eventually spotted Martel walking along a woods trail at the end of St. Pauli Hofenstrabe Road. Martel then apparently saw Tpr. Robinson, who was wearing his state police uniform, and started running further into the woods. Tpr. Robinson pursued Martel on foot, yelling for him to stop, and to show his hands, but Martel did not comply. Tpr. Robinson unsnapped his taser in case it was necessary to take Martel into custody. Martel then came to the top of a knoll on the trail and stopped with his back to Tpr. Robinson. Martel made several movements with his hands in front of him, reaching in his waistband and pocket. Tpr. Robinson shouted to Martel to show him his hands, and turn around, but he did not comply. As Martel kept making movements in his belt area, Tpr. Robinson put away his taser and took out his firearm, repeating commands to Martel to show his hands. Martel then quickly turned his upper body and head to face Tpr. Robinson, with both hands gripping a metallic object pointed at Robinson in the way one would hold and aim a firearm ready to shoot. Tpr. Robinson, believing that Martel was pointing a handgun at him and thinking he was about to be shot, feared for his life and fired 7 rounds at Martel, striking him once in the lower right side of his back. Martel then fled over the knoll further along the trail. Tpr. Robinson followed and when he got to the top of the knoll he again saw Martel in the same “shooter’s stance,” both hands holding what he thought was a gun pointed at him. Tpr. Robinson fired one more round at Martel, and then sought cover behind a tree. When he looked out again from behind the tree, he saw Martel lying on the ground. Tpr. Robinson was then able to approach Martel, handcuff him, pat him down for weapons, call for help, and render first aid until other officers and ambulance personnel arrived. During the pat down, Tpr. Robinson asked Martel if he had any weapons, and Martel said no, only a cell phone. Trp. Robinson located the phone on the ground near Martel’s head. Tpr. Robinson asked Martel why he pointed the cell phone at him like it was a gun, and Martel responded: “I wanted to die.”

Martel was taken by ambulance to a hospital but died a few hours later. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the torso, right lower back. The trajectory of the bullet was back to front, at a steep upward angle, and left to right. According to the results of the Crime Scene Search Team investigation, the results of autopsy, and Tpr. Robinson’s statement, this trajectory is consistent with Martel being on top of the knoll, and being hit either as he turned his upper body towards the trooper, or as just as he was turning away to flee. The autopsy toxicology report also revealed the presence of cocaine and cannabinoids in Martel’s system.
Subsequent interviews with Martel’s family members, former girlfriend, and acquaintances revealed that Martel had a serious drug addiction problem, and in the weeks leading up to this incident, was using cocaine daily, had broken up with his girlfriend, lost his job, was depressed, and had threatened suicide.

Under the facts of this case, the Attorney General’s Office concluded that Tpr. Robinson was reasonable in his belief that he was in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury when he fired at Jonathan Martel who was holding what appeared to him to be a handgun pointed in his direction. Given what reasonably appeared to be a serious threat to his life, Tpr. Robinson’s response of using deadly force was reasonable and justified.

  Website consulting provided by The National Association of Attorneys General.