Vermont AG Ordered to Explain Status of Thetford Death Inquiry
Macadam Mason, 39, in a recent family photograph.
Chelsea — A judge yesterday ordered the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to explain why, seven months after it launched an investigation into a Vermont State Police Trooper’s decision to fire a stun gun that killed an unarmed Thetford man, the inquiry is still ongoing.
The Attorney General’s Office, citing an ongoing criminal investigation, has refused to release documents that have been sought by Theresa Davidonis, who filed a lawsuit claiming emotional distress as a result of watching her boyfriend, MacAdam Mason, die at the hands of state police.
During a hearing yesterday, Orange Superior Court Judge Timothy Tomasi suggested that he was not prepared to allow the Attorney General’s Office to indefinitely withhold the documents by citing the ongoing criminal case, and told Assistant Vermont Attorney General Jana Brown to submit an affidavit from a state official within two weeks updating the status of the investigation.
“It’s a little difficult for the court to say when a criminal investigation should be concluded,” Tomasi said. “(But) maybe the burden shifts with the passing of time. It may be that the criminal case is not the most pressing part.”
Davidonis’ attorney, Tom Costello, voiced frustration over the delay, saying the documents may include information that is crucial to building his case. Costello suggested that Tomasi could release the documents to him but keep them sealed from the public, if authorities were concerned about jeopardizing the ongoing investigation into Trooper David Shaffer.
“How much time do you need?” Costello said. “Seven months is an extraordinary time for this kind of case.”
Brown said that she has intentionally stayed away from the Attorney General’s criminal investigation into Shaffer, to avoid a conflict of interest with her responsibility to represent Shaffer in civil court.
“I have no contact with the criminal division with regards to decisions they may make in this case,” Brown said. “I don’t talk or consult with them in this case. It’s appropriate to keep those separate.”
Yesterday’s hearing was convened to discuss two legal matters — the Vermont Attorney’s General’s Office’s request to dismiss Davidonis’ lawsuit, citing an alleged lack of evidence, and Davidonis’ request to force the state to turn over documents from their investigation.
Tomasi did not make a decision on either issue during the hour long hearing, saying he would eventually issue written rulings.
On June 20, State Police responded to the home that Mason, 39, and Davidonis shared on Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford after Mason called Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center threatening to kill himself and others. The State Police said Davidonis persuaded police to leave, but they eventually returned.
What happened next is in dispute.
State Police have said that Shaffer ordered Mason to lie on his stomach on the ground. Instead, “Mason stood up and moved toward the Trooper with a closed fist yelling aggressively,” State Police said in a statement at the time.
Shaffer fired his Taser stun gun, striking Mason in the chest, police said. Davidonis and her son, Aleks, who also witnessed the shooting, have said that Mason never threatened the troopers, but instead raised up his hands in a surrender position, with his palms facing outward. He made two steps toward Shaffer — the ground he was on sloped toward the trooper — and said, “Go ahead and shoot me.”
The New Hampshire Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that the Taser stun gun strike caused Mason’s death.
Mason had suffered a brain seizure the night before, information that Davidonis says she shared with police before the fatal encounter.
“I said, ‘Don’t Taser him. You’ll kill him,’ ” Davidonis previously told the Valley News. “They looked at me and shot him right in the chest. I watched the barbs. I watched the eyes roll back in his head. I just want people to know they were told. They were warned. ”
A DHMC doctor told the Valley News that, because of the seizure he suffered the previous night, Mason may have been unable to understand Shaffer’s commands.
Shaffer remains on paid administrative leave, Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro said yesterday.
Theresa Davidonis sued police for emotional distress and trespass, seeking unspecified monetary damages. As part of the “discovery” process, she requested records from the Vermont State Police investigation into the incident. Officials refused, saying releasing the records could jeopardize a potential prosecution of Shaffer,
“Any disclosure, whether to plaintiff, plaintiff’s attorney, or to the public at large, of the investigatory files related to this ongoing criminal investigation would jeopardize the integrity and effectiveness of the criminal investigation and the prosecutorial process to a serious extent,” Vermont State Police Det. Sgt Lance Burnham, who is heading the investigation, wrote in a court filing last year. The Attorney General’s Office has also argued that many of the records are irrelevant to Davidonis’ claims in her lawsuit.
The records currently reside with the Attorney General’s Office and the Orange County State’s Attorney’s Office, which are reviewing the incident. Theresa Davidonis declined to comment after the hearing yesterday.
In many ways, yesterday’s hearing, and Davidonis’ lawsuit, are a prelude to a bigger legal battle that is brewing. Davidonis, because she is not the executor of Mason’s estate, has no legal standing to sue over his death and probe the key question in the encounter: Whether the police ran afoul of the law — making them potentially liable for a large monetary penalty — when they shot Mason with the stun gun.
Rhonda Taylor, Mason’s mother and executor of his estate, sat in the gallery yesterday, along with her attorneys.
After the hearing, Orford attorney Ed Van Dorn, said his firm is investigating the case and considering filing a civil rights lawsuit alleging, among other complaints, excessive force and a violation of Mason’s civil rights. Van Dorn did not provide a time line for filing his case.
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.