Jury Acquits Former Windsor Police Officer in 2014 Shooting

By Jordan Cuddemi

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 09-14-2017 11:33 AM

White River Junction — A jury on Wednesday night exonerated a former Windsor police detective on criminal charges related to a shooting during a 2014 sting operation in Windsor.

The panel of nine women and three men deliberated for nearly six hours before returning not guilty verdicts on two charges: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and reckless endangerment.

Audible sighs of relief rippled through the courtroom as a dozen of Ryan Palmer’s family members and friends leaned in to one another after the verdict was read. Palmer’s attorney, Daniel Sedon, placed one hand on his client’s back and the two men embraced.

“I am very happy to get my life back in order,” Palmer, now 30, said after the jury left the courtroom around 9:30 p.m. “This entire battle has always been bigger than me; I fought this for every police officer that is working currently and will come down the road.”

He added: “We believe that from the start the prosecution took one piece of really not that great video and let their opinions and their feelings dictate where the investigation led instead of letting the facts dictate that.”

Palmer shot and wounded Jorge Burgos during an undercover operation in the parking lot of Ferguson’s Auto on Nov. 16, 2014, in Windsor. The shooting came just a few months after an officer-involved shooting set off violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., and other parts of the country. Had officer-involved shootings not been as prevalent and publicized at the time he shot Burgos, Palmer said, he wouldn’t have found himself facing criminal charges.

“I’ve thought from the beginning that this was a political prosecution,” Palmer said. “It smelled that way from the very start, and you can see here that the facts never supported the charges.”

He also criticized the prosecution for the way they evaluated his use of force in the case, contending the state applied the wrong standard.

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Assistant Attorney General Matthew Levine, the lead prosecutor in the case, only had a few words for a reporter as he wheeled his files out of the courthouse in the dark.

“These are very difficult cases,” Levine said. “I respect the jury’s verdict. I am obviously disappointed.”

Palmer testified on Wednesday morning, the fourth day of the trial, and told jurors he was adamant that he feared for his safety when he shot Burgos through the window of his fleeing car.

“I shot that vehicle to incapacitate what I perceived as a threat of serious bodily injury or death,” Palmer said from the witness stand while Sedon questioned him. “I did it to protect myself.”

Palmer didn’t waver when Levine pressed him on his memory of the episode. He maintained that he fired his duty weapon three times when Burgos sped forward in Palmer’s path.

Palmer made reference to Burgos’ tires spinning in the gravel, calling it “an image that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”

The prosecution argued Palmer wasn’t in imminent danger of being run over, but rather shot Burgos merely to stop him from fleeing that day.

Levine told the court during his questioning of Palmer that the former officer’s account doesn’t match up to footage police pulled from a surveillance camera at the auto shop. Initially, Burgos was charged with attempting to run down Palmer. Those charges were dropped shortly after they were filed.

The jurors began their deliberations at about 3:40 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon.

Around 6:40 p.m., jurors asked to rewatch both the FBI and state police renditions of the video footage at a slower rate of speed. They entered the courtroom and viewed the footage on a large screen in the center of the courtroom before going back into deliberations.

Around 8 p.m., the jury asked whether it could read a transcript of Palmer’s interview with former Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Robert Patten, but the judge said the document wasn’t in evidence. The jury withdrew that request.

The prosecution rested its case around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Palmer was the only witness the defense called.

As the day segued into closing arguments, the mood in the courtroom intensified. Both Sedon and Levine each spoke for roughly 45 minutes.

Sedon defended his client and brought up the national climate toward police officers in November 2014, in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., incident.

“This was the issue of the day in 2014,” Sedon told jurors. “I can’t speak to why investigators chose to disregard the credible evidence … Who knows.”

Sedon said he never had a doubt that Palmer wasn’t guilty.

“Ryan Palmer is innocent,” he said. “He was innocent on Nov. 16, 2014, and he is innocent today.”

Sedon told jurors that the testimony by former Windsor police Detective Christopher Connor and Meghan Place, a victim’s advocate in Windsor County, should be given credence. Connor and Place both said they saw Palmer near the front of Burgos’ car and said he was at risk of being run over.

Sedon told jurors to be skeptical of testimony by Burgos and his passenger Brittany Smith, both of whom have been convicted of crimes for not telling the truth. Burgos, who testified on Tuesday, and Smith contended Palmer was never in front of the vehicle.

Sedon submitted that his client’s “perception and his reality are the same” and that both of those were that he was in “danger” that day. He said tire tracks from Burgos’ vehicle show Burgos steered left toward Palmer when he fled the scene, and he contended Burgos knew Palmer and Connor were police officers all along.

Levine had a much different take on the evidence: He told jurors he had confidence they would see the state proved its case.

“There is simply no credible evidence that Ryan Palmer had a reasonable belief (of serious bodily injury or death),” Levine said. “The evidence is clear. The only question is whether you are going to hold him accountable.”

He continued: “No one wants to believe a former police officer commits a crime.”

He touched on the video, and said had it never surfaced, Palmer may not have been charged.

“This case is a perfect example of what might have happened absent of the videotape,” Levine said. “There is no question … Jorge Burgos would have been charged with an attack on a law enforcement officer … and the initial statements of police wouldn’t have been questioned.”

He told jurors Palmer put together a “hasty” plan, arrived on scene in a way that he wasn’t perceived as a police officer and fired shots to take down Burgos, who was a known drug dealer in town, according to Palmer.

“He wanted to be the local guy who got Jorge Burgos,” Levine told jurors.

Levine said he gave weight to Burgos and Smith’s testimony because they told a consistent story: that Palmer wasn’t in front of the vehicle when Burgos fled the parking lot. Levine said Connor’s story cast doubt on Palmer’s version of events and argued Place had a distorted view of the situation as she was watching it unfold in a vehicle’s side mirror.

He also contended that Burgos didn’t turn the steering wheel left into Palmer’s path, and said he and Smith couldn’t have known Palmer and Connor, who were dressed in plainclothes, were officers.

Levine urged jurors to pay attention to the evidence and not act out of “sympathy for Ryan Palmer … who is otherwise responsible.”

“I’m trusting you,” Levine said. “I believe if you do that, you will see that the state has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Sedon closed by asking jurors to decide the case based on the evidence.

“Decide this case in favor of Ryan Palmer,” Sedon said. “He is a man for whom his honor and his dignity and his word still matter. He is here to defend that.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-2348.