The Billings Outpost

Videos leave open questions in police shooting

Daniel Brawley was a small man. Police Chief Rich St. John described him as “slight” and “very, very small.” After breaking into a house at 807 Miles Ave. and attempting to escape police in a stolen patrol car, Brawley was very, very dead.

Police said Brawley and his wife, Heather, broke into the house, searched for valuables, found a shotgun, showered, snacked and drank tequila.

Police bullhorns ordered the couple to exit the building.

The Brawleys were restrained with Flex Cuffs, an ersatz substitute for metal cuffs used by riot police in mass arrests. Cheap, made of plastic, and less than foolproof, Flex Cuffs have a reputation for leaking prisoners.

No need to be a Houdini to escape these industrial zip ties. Flexibility and a slight build help. Police knew it. The chief knew it. Brawley knew it.

The prisoners were separated, and officer Dave Punt put Daniel in the back seat of his patrol car. The patrol car had a grill that confined the prisoner to the back seat.

Chief St. John said Punt tried to lock the grill, but it would not lock. Though there were several guns in the front seat, Punt left Brawley alone with the car and guns in his plastic cuffs. A switch inside the car would have prevented the car from moving. Punt did not activate the switch.

Brawley slipped the cuffs and crawled through the narrow, unlocked door above the grill and drove off. Punt ran after his squad car. Brawley backed into a tree, shifted gears and pulled onto the street. At some point Punt was knocked down.

Did Brawley swerve in an attempt to hit the officer? Investigators and the coroner’s jury may or may not be convinced by police and TV videos.

Maybe not.

Austin Finn, writing in the Retort, Montana State University Billings’ newspaper, wrote “They (the police) executed Daniel Brawley.”

Bloggers posted mixed opinions on local blogs. Most vehemently agreed with either Chief St. John or Finn.

One video posted online and later taken down showed Punt running beside the car, pumping lead into the vehicle.

Those are the facts. Only questions remain. Questions like:

Was Officer Dave Punt justified in killing the small man? Did the chief overstep the principles of evidence in declaring this a righteous shooting before the event was investigated (as it will be) by an outside law enforcement agency and a coroner’s jury?

The chief professed Punt’s innocence to reporters before the small body was cold. The next day, St. John used a pair of videos from cameras mounted in squad cars (including Punt’s) to “prove” his assertion.

One video showed the officer falling backwards. The other seemed to show him bulldogging a patrol car. Film shot by a TV cameraman showed Punt running beside the squad car pumping bullets into the vehicle.

There was no evidence of self defense in the TV video.

These questions and more may be answered by the coroner’s jury, which will be convened six months from now. In the meantime, the county attorney will ask an outside law enforcement agency to investigate Brawley’s death.

The coroner’s jury is an antique institution that served a vital service in Europe’s middle ages. In an age when most of the world’s population lived in rural villages, crimes often occurred hundreds of miles from a judge.

Everyone in the area would be aware of the crime and have a good idea who committed it. People wanted something done. The coroner’s jury was not much, but it was something.

If, for example, a man killed his brother, the coroner’s jury would examine the facts, question witnesses and decide if a crime had been committed and if there was sufficient evidence to charge the accused. County attorneys are not bound by the jury’s verdict but almost never ignore it.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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