Officer cleared in fatal shooting

2013-11-06T13:54:00Z 2014-04-18T11:38:08Z Officer cleared in fatal shootingBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

After hearing a day and a half of testimony, a coroner’s jury found Wednesday that Billings Police Officer Dave Punt was justified when he shot and killed Daniel Brawley earlier this year.

The jury deliberated for fewer than 15 minutes before coming to its decision, declaring the death of Brawley a non-criminal justifiable homicide.

After the verdict, Punt hugged family, friends and other officers before a handful of the jurors congratulated him and shook his hand.

The verdict marked the conclusion of a two-day inquest presided over by Big Horn County Coroner Terry Bullis. The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office presented 15 witnesses.

Punt shot and killed Brawley, 29, on Jan. 6. Brawley had been taken into custody following an hours-long standoff with police at a house in the 800 block of Miles Avenue and had been placed handcuffed into the back of Punt’s patrol car.

The incident appeared to be over when Brawley, unnoticed, freed one of his hands, climbed through a Plexiglas partition and into the driver's seat of the running patrol car before attempting to drive away and hitting Punt in the process.

Punt’s testimony Wednesday described a chilly Sunday morning that started out like many others before exploding into 20 seconds of chaos.

"My thoughts are 'I need to move, I need to get out of the way and I need to stop him,' " Punt told the jury, describing the moments after being struck by his own patrol car.

Punt testified that he'd been called to the house on Miles after a woman checked on the place for her out-of-town boyfriend and found an unknown man sleeping inside.

Once on scene, Punt grabbed his duty rifle from the trunk of the patrol car and joined officers inside before eventually moving outside and calling SWAT over fears of an ambush in the basement after an officer spotted ammunition and an open gun case on the floor.

Eventually, officers brought out Brawley and his wife, Heather Brawley, uninjured after they gave themselves up. Like the officers who testified before him, Punt thought the situation had ended about as well as it could have.

He went back to his patrol car and put the rifle in its case and in the front seat — it's normally stored in the trunk and he planned to pack it up along with barricades he'd set up earlier — near a mounted shotgun with extra shells.

Like those testifying before him, Punt noted that Brawley was "a very small man" — a forensic pathologist later testified he was just taller than 5 feet 1 inch and weighed about 120 pounds — and that he appeared very calm.

"He wasn't moving much, wasn't fidgeting, wasn't talking," Punt said. "Just standing."

What he didn't know was that Brawley was high on methamphetamine. Dr. Thomas Bennett, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Brawley, said blood and urine tests indicated Brawley had about two times what could be considered a normal dose of meth in his system at the time.

"The methamphetamine in his system was at a significant level," Bennett said.

When Punt put Brawley with his hands cuffed behind his back into the patrol car, he tried to close the Plexiglas partition separating the front and back seats several times, with no luck.

Jeff Chartier, a police detective, testified that later testing showed the window was defective and didn't work all of the time when pressure was applied to the driver's seat where it was attached.

Punt then locked and closed the doors and went to speak with another officer about charges against Brawley. Less than a minute later, he looked over his shoulder and saw Brawley climbing into the front seat.

That prompted Punt to run toward the car, which was parked in the street facing south. Brawley began to back it up, swinging it in a 180-degree arc.

Punt reached the front driver's side mirror, with the intention of opening the driver’s side door, when the car struck him and threw him to the ground across the street. Brawley continued to back the car up until it hit a tree on the south side of the street and then put it in drive, heading west on Miles.

Punt said he felt he had no choice but try to stop Brawley because of the weapons in the front seat and because he thought Brawley was going to try to hit him again.

"He's got a car, he's got a radio, he's got a rifle, he's got a shotgun," Punt said. "... I felt like engaging him was at this point the best way to not get hit."

Punt ended up firing nine shots into the car — the first, and likely fatal, shot going through the passenger side window, with the other eight hitting the back side and rear of the car — before deciding his duty pistol wasn't effective any more.

Brawley was struck once, with the bullet entering his right ribcage, going through his torso and leaving the left side before lodging in his left arm, Bennett said.

The bullet damaged Brawley's ribs, lungs, aorta and pulmonary artery. He died at Billings Clinic about 30 minutes later.

"If he would've been in the emergency room when he was shot, they couldn't have saved him, in my opinion," Bennett said.

During Wednesday's testimony, both Chief Rich St. John and Chartier, a certified firearms instructor, said they think Punt was justified and that he acted within the guidelines of the department's training and policies on use of deadly force.

"I believe that Officer Punt's use of deadly force, based on the totality of the circumstances ... was justified," St. John said.

Before deliberations began, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito reminded the jury members that it was their job to determine if Punt was justified in the moments of the shooting and not to judge the circumstances leading up to the attempted escape.

"Everyone on Jan. 6 underestimated the desperation of Daniel Brawley," he said. "If anyone is at fault, we're all at fault for underestimating Daniel Brawley that day."

Two other coroner's inquests remain pending in Yellowstone County. An inquest into the May 17 shooting death of Thomas Hilger in Worden by a sheriff's deputy is slated for Nov. 25 and 26. An inquest into the July 5 fatal shooting by a sheriff's deputy of a Montana State Prison escapee, Dean Randolph Jess, has not yet been scheduled.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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