“It’s Scary How Easily An Officer Can End Up Charged With Murder” ( Part )

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Part 1 of a 2-part series

When Sheriff’s Inv. Tim Robertson was asked to give an official statement about fatally shooting a career criminal who’d tried to take his gun away, he was in an ER under the effect of a sedative and undergoing treatment for what he feared was a heart attack brought on by the life-or-death struggle he’d just endured.

On the advice of an attorney, he declined to be interviewed. He was perfectly willing to explain what happened–wanted to, in fact. But he needed time to get his medical status clarified and his head cleared, to calm down and to sleep.

The next Robertson knew, he was arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter, later “upgraded” to murder. A coroner’s preliminary examination revealed that Robertson’s attacker had been shot in the back.

Without learning Robertson’s version of events, without waiting for the completion of the post-shooting investigation, and without receiving full autopsy and toxicology findings, the circuit solicitor (prosecutor) had decided to pursue criminal proceedings that could send the 41-year-old lawman to state prison for 3 years to life.

“The rule of law prohibits any officer from shooting a fleeing suspect in the back four times,” the solicitor was quoted in news reports. “That’s why I’m charging him.”

“That’s absurd,” attorney Vinton Lide, who eventually headed Robertson’s defense team, told Force Science News. “I’ve never seen anything like this in 44 years of practice. It’s shameful and inexcusable.”

The case, which went to trial earlier this month [10/06] in South Carolina, dramatically illustrates the pressing need for the criminal justice system to better understand the vital role science can and should play in the investigation and evaluation of officer-involved shootings. As things too often stand now, says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, “it’s scary how easily an officer can end up charged with murder.”

The dead man in Robertson’s controversial shooting was William Sheffield, a 45-year-old ex-convict with a long criminal record and murals of jailhouse tattoos that reflected it. In late 2005 he was out on bond on chop-shop charges, and Robertson, with the Darlington County (SC) SO, had been in a weeks-long cat-and-mouse pursuit of him on new grand larceny warrants for the theft of an $8,000 stainless steel grill and 3 hauling trailers. Sheffield, it would be learned later, had told associates he had no intention of going back to jail.

On Thursday, Dec. 29, a fellow investigator, Andy Locklair, got a tip from a snitch who happened to be a relative of Sheffield that the wanted felon and his girlfriend were holing up with an acquaintance in a mobile home in neighboring Chesterfield County.

That night, Robertson and Locklair rendezvoused outside a closed country store near the alleged hideout with a deputy from Chesterfield County SD and a patrol officer from the nearest hamlet, Society Hill (pop. 700). The trailer house was said to be about 2 miles west down a paved road in a hilly area of dense piney woods, hardscrabble farms, and scattered mobile homes, although the exact location was uncertain.

Robertson was well acquainted with Sheffield and knew his GMC pickup truck, so it was agreed he should explore down the road in search of it, using his unmarked Crown Vic to stay low-key.

At about 10 p.m., Robertson was heading back from an unsuccessful sweep of the road when he saw a pickup truck swing into the unpaved driveway of one of the properties he’d earlier passed by. The night was moonless and starless, the area unlighted, with fog further hampering visibility, but as he pulled in behind the truck Robertson was certain it was Sheffield’s. He keyed his radio mic and called to his backup. “Andy, y’all come on down here. I think I’ve got ‘em.”

A female passenger climbed out and headed toward a trailer a few feet away. The male driver, wearing a baseball cap, stepped out, and Robertson recognized him as the fugitive he was hunting.

Unbeknown to Robertson, his radio call had not been heard back at the country store. The other officers were standing outside their units chatting, out of earshot. Robertson was alone in the dark, unmonitored, with an offender who had some remarkably violent entries on his rap sheet. In a drug dispute, Robertson recalls, “Sheffield once fired 90 rounds from a Mac-10 into a mobile home with a woman and 2 children inside. I was always wary when I dealt with him because I knew he could be violent when trapped.”

As Robertson approached him, “he immediately recognized me. His eyes got as big as saucers.” Not knowing who or what might be in the trailer house, the investigator wanted to take the suspect into custody before he could flee there. Robertson grabbed both of Sheffield’s hands and placed them on top of the truck cab.

“I have warrants for you,” Robertson told him. “You’re under arrest.”

“No,” Sheffield retorted. “I’m not goin’.”

“Immediately, he spins 180 degrees right into me,” Robertson says…and the fight of his life–and for his life–was on.

Robertson is no cream puff. At 6 ft. 3 in. and 225 lbs., he can bench press more than 300 lbs. Sheffield was smaller, about 5 ft. 11 in. and 210 lbs., but he fought with uncommon ferocity. Later, toxicology reports would reveal that he had high levels of alcohol and cocaine in his blood that night.

As they grappled beside the truck, Sheffield repeatedly tried to grab Robertson’s holstered 9mm Sig-Sauer 226, Robertson says. Robertson, who’d graduated first in his academy class in 1997 and is well-versed in defensive tactics, managed to repel him with knee strikes. But even though he was driving his knee with all his strength into Sheffield’s abdomen and groin, the attacker wouldn’t go to the ground where Robertson could get him handcuffed.

“There was no sound, no weakening, no fazing him,” Robertson says. “I was kneeing him as hard as I could, yelling at him to get down and stop resisting, and he just kept staring a hole right through me with his eyes wide open. I never saw anyone who could stand such punishment. I couldn’t believe it.”

As the struggle sustained, Robertson could feel himself growing tired and winded. “I wasn’t sure how long I could last,” he says.

After one attempted gun grab, he shouted at Sheffield, “I will shoot you! Get on the ground!”

Sheffield snarled back, “Shoot me, damn it, shoot me!”

But Robertson didn’t–until he felt Sheffield’s hand clamp firmly on his pistol butt and start to pull the gun out. “I felt his intentions were to kill me,” Robertson says. He trapped Sheffield’s hand, wrenched the Sig away from him, shoved him back, and ordered him to the ground at gunpoint. “When he started toward me again,” Robertson fired 2 rounds at him from a distance of 6 to 8 feet.

Both struck, but still Sheffield did not fall. Instead, he ran toward a tractor shed some 30 to 40 feet away, and disappeared into the darkness.

Robertson pursued with his pistol out, unintentionally firing one round into the ground as he ran before realizing that his finger was still on the trigger. When he reached the shed, he rounded the corner–and before he could stop ran smack into William Sheffield, crouched in a fighting stance. “That shocked me,” Robertson says. “I expected him to be on the ground or gone.”

He was jerked to reality when Sheffield instantly clutched his gun. Robertson whipped his gun hand back, simultaneously shoved Sheffield away and fired another 2 rounds. This time the suspect fell face down in the dirt. “I could see he was bleeding,” Robertson remembers. “He tried to get up, but he couldn’t move his legs.” Sheffield bled out at the scene.

By the time the suspect went down, approximately 2 1/2 minutes had elapsed since Robertson’s futile call for backup.

Operating in what he considered a state of shock–”I couldn’t believe I actually had to shoot somebody!”–Robertson handcuffed the suspect as a precaution, radioed a call for backup and an ambulance (the officers down the road heard this one), dealt with Sheffield’s hysterical girlfriend and a male resident who emerged from the trailer house, and tried to get his hyperventilation under control.

Arriving responders found him by his car, “squatting down, holding his head and feeling extremely upset and extremely tired.” Robertson says his chest “felt like it was in a vise.” He had trouble breathing and couldn’t stop coughing. Concerned about his heart, EMTs gave him nitroglycerine for chest pains. Only later would he learn he was not experiencing a heart attack.

“My mind was just spinning,” Robertson says. “During the fights there were times when things were happening so fast I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Other times things happened in such slow motion they didn’t seem real. I’d never been in a situation where all that stress was thrust on me at once.”

En route by ambulance to the Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center in nearby Hartsville, Robertson cell phoned his wife, Donna, a retired lieutenant with Hartsville PD and now a private investigator. When she met him at the hospital, she had in tow a friend and neighbor, attorney Paul Cannerella.

Meanwhile, the Chesterfield County SD had contacted a state investigative agency to conduct the investigation of Robertson’s shooting. It was a resident agent from that department who showed up at the ER, expecting to take a statement from the highly stressed survivor. “Not tonight,” Cannerella told him; Robertson was in “no condition” to deal with something that important.

By then, it was well after midnight on Friday, Dec. 30. The extended New Year’s weekend lay ahead. Cannerella promised that when normal routines resumed on Tuesday, Jan. 3, Robertson would have a full written statement ready for pickup at the lawyer’s office. And he did. But no one came by to get it, and no contact was made for an interview.

On Wednesday, he found out why, when he was arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter. Sheffield’s girlfriend had told authorities she’d seen the entire encounter and that Robertson had gunned down Sheffield without provocation as he tried to run away.

The male resident of the mobile home contradicted her, insisting she had run inside the trailer before any shooting started and stayed there until afterward. When she first rushed in, he claimed, she told him Sheffield and a cop were fighting over the officer’s gun. Later it was established that from her vantage point she could not have seen everything that took place.

The circuit solicitor, however, seemed fixated on the bullet holes in the suspect’s back, and determined that Robertson face criminal penalties.

“I was just stunned,” Robertson says. “It was bad enough to go through the shooting, but to be charged and arrested without my side of the story being heard–how could things get to this point? My wife just went to pieces. It was my worst nightmare.”

Or so it seemed, until the solicitor went before the next grand jury and got the stakes upped significantly–to an indictment for murder. Now if found guilty, Robertson could be sentenced to life in prison. “I was livid,” he says. “I felt they’d have a hard time proving voluntary manslaughter, much less murder, which requires malice aforethought. I felt like they were just gunning for me.”

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