A Vermont state trooper's use of deadly force against a suspect was found to be legally justified, because that officer reasonably thought the man was about to kill him or other cops.
The announcement came Tuesday from Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy, following separate reviews from her office and the office of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, whose office agreed with Kennedy’s assessment.
"The killing of Michael Battles was justifiable homicide, under the law," Kennedy said at a press conference in Rutland.
The announcement means Trooper Eric Vitali will face no criminal charges for shooting and killing a man early in the morning of September 1 in Poultney.
Police said they were called to a home on Finel Hollow Road in the late afternoon of Aug. 31 for the report of a woman who appeared badly beaten, and afraid for her life.
Michael Battles, 32, had a lengthy criminal record, Kennedy noted, and was suspected of a charge of felony domestic assault.
A standoff followed, in which Vermont State Police personnel said an agitated Battles was threatening them, and was believed to have access to multiple weapons, including a muzzleloader, compound bow, and knives.
"At one point, Mr. Battles is heard stating that he had nothing to live for, and that coming outside would not end well," Kennedy said, reading from her report about the case.
Kennedy said when Vitali, from a sniper’s position, spotted a silver-colored object in Battles’ hand, he shot through a window once, and killed him.
What the trooper thought was a handgun turned out to be a BB gun that looked like a more powerful firearm.
"Trooper Vitali was certainly justified in looking at this through a scope and believing it was a real weapon," Kennedy said, pointing to a photo of the BB gun projected on a screen at the press conference.
Right after the fatal shot, four other troopers, who Kennedy said might not have known with certainty where the first bullet came from, also opened fire at the home.
Those officers were identified as Sgt. Lyle Decker, Trooper Michael Anderson, Trooper Christopher Brown, and Trooper Matthew Cannon.
The four other troopers fired more than two dozen rounds, Kennedy said, though none struck Battles.
Decker, Anderson, Brown, and Cannon, will not face criminal charges for their actions that day either, Kennedy said, since their actions were also deemed justified under the law.
"We must be scrutinized by the public on this," acknowledged Col. Matt Birmingham, the commander of the Vermont State Police. "It’s why there’s independent review by elected officials on these shootings, and that’s an important part of the process. But we also we can change training, where we can change policy, where we can improve on tactics. These are conversations that are happening with police executives all over the country."
Birmingham said while the outside legal review by Kennedy and Donovan’s offices are complete, an internal review is still underway.
Kennedy said some responding officers thought Battles was exhibiting signs of impairment, in the form of slurred speech.
A toxicology report found the following substances in Battles’ blood stream, according to Kennedy: caffeine, alprazolam, buprenorphine-free, delta-9 THC, methylphenidate, norbuprenorphine, ritalinic acid, sertraline, and desmethylsertraline.
Benzodiazepines and cannabinoids were found in his urine, the state’s attorney added.
She could not say whether or not the chemicals in Battles’ system came from legitimately-prescribed medications or substances that were legal for him to have.
When the shooting happened, all five troopers who discharged their weapons at the scene in Poultney on Sept. 1 were placed on administrative leave, which is department policy in a case like this.
The men were all cleared by a clinician in the weeks following the event, and are back at work, Birmingham said.