Records raise new questions about fatal police shooting of Denis Reynoso

September 6, 2013: Lynn police officer Joshua Hilton (top right) is interviewed about the day he fatally shot Denis Reynoso Earlier this month, the Essex County District Attorney's Office provided The Bay State Examiner with a number of records related to the fatal police shooting of Denis Reynoso. The records offer a rare look at how police shootings are investigated in Massachusetts and raise new questions about the Reynoso shooting.

Reynoso was shot to death in his apartment by Lynn police officer Joshua Hilton in front of his five-year-old son on September 5, 2013. Lynn Police Chief Kevin Coppinger told reporters that day that Reynoso was shot after grabbing a police officer's gun. After Reynoso was shot, family members and other supporters organized several rallies to protest the shooting and questioned whether Reynoso really took the officer's gun and why the police entered his apartment without a warrant.

In January, the Essex County District Attorney's Office, which was responsible for overseeing the investigation of the shooting, released a four-and-a-half page report clearing the three officers who were involved of any criminal wrongdoing.

The summary of events as told in the district attorney's report went something like this:

Police were called to the apartment complex where Reynoso lived after several people saw him exhibiting strange behavior and yelling. The first three officers to arrive were John Bernard, Paul Scali, and Joshua Hilton. Before they arrived on scene, Reynoso had gone back inside his apartment. The officers spoke to two employees of the property management who pointed the apartment out to them. They also spoke to a postal worker who told them the man was Denis Reynoso. The postal worker said Reynoso was a military veteran and might suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bernard and Scali walked to the front of the house while Hilton went to the back to make sure Reynoso didn't try to leave through a back door. Bernard and Scali knocked on the door and followed Reynoso inside after he answered it. After they entered, Scali went to let Hilton in through the back door when Reynoso suddenly charged at Bernard. Reynoso somehow grabbed Bernard's gun and tried to shoot him, but Bernard was able to grab the gun and push it away from his head just in time. Scali ran back and joined Bernard in struggling with Reynoso over the weapon.

Hilton ran back to the front of the house, entered through the front door, and witnessed Reynoso fire a second shot while struggling with the two officers. Bernard told Hilton to shoot Reynoso. After saying at least five times that he was going to shoot, he fired a single shot, hitting Reynoso in the left side. Reynoso was later pronounced dead at a hospital. After the shooting, the officers noticed Reynoso's son near a couch behind them.

We were unsatisfied by the district attorney's report and raised a number of questions about it when it was first released. In February, we made a public records request to the Essex County District Attorney's Office for all records related to its investigation of the Reynoso shooting. Later that month, we received a letter from the district attorney's office stating that the office would charge us a fee of $112 which we paid.

In March, we were provided with nearly 200 pages of previously unreleased documents related to the investigation of the shooting. We were also provided with video-recordings of the interviews that investigators conducted with the three officers involved in the shooting.

The videos show the officers being interviewed by Detective Lieutenant Norman Zuk and Sergeant Stephen O'Connor, both of whom are state police officers assigned to the district attorney's office, and Captain Mark O'Toole of the Lynn Police Department. An attorney, Tom Dressler, represented all three men during their interviews.

Did the police walk in or break in?

The records provided by the district attorney's office show that Bernard and Scali provided different, contradictory accounts of how they entered Reynoso's home.

Bernard claimed that Reynoso walked away from them, into the house, and they simply followed him in. "He kinda just turned away from me. He kinda walked away," Bernard said during his interview. Later in the interview, O'Toole asked if Reynoso tried to close the door on Bernard and Scali. "No, he touched it and then just walked away. He didn't close it. I didn't force it open," Bernard replied.

Scali said that Reynoso tried to slam the door and Bernard used his foot to kick it open. "He [i.e., Reynoso] grabs the door. He swings it out, goes to rip it shut, and John [Bernard] kicks it as it's – as he tries to shut it. And it – and the door just flies open," Scali said.

Scali's version of the story was backed up by several other witnesses. In fact, an officer who spoke to Bernard shortly after the shooting said Bernard gave him an account similar to the one Scali provided during his interview. "[A] male party opened the door and yelled to them your [sic] not coming in here and went and slammed the door. Officer Bernard fearing for the safety of the child was able to stop the door from shutting and entered the apartment," Sergeant T. Hallisey wrote, paraphrasing Bernard. Another witness reportedly told Detective T. Ferrari that "Reynoso tried to close the door but the officer kicked it so it didn't slam in his face."

The investigators who interviewed the officers never asked either of them about their contradictory statements. The district attorney's report does not acknowledge that there was any disagreement about how they entered Reynoso's home. The report merely states that one witness, a postal worker, "observed Officers Bernard and Scali follow Reynoso into the house."

How plausible is the police story?

Bernard claimed that Reynoso was able to take his gun even though it was "locked in" to the holster at the time. Bernard claimed he didn't realize Reynoso had taken his gun until he saw the flashlight attached to it. "I don't know how my gun got taken. It happened so fast," Bernard said. "He was a combat vet, so he had to have been trained in something. He knew right what to do. Somehow he got it right out like no problem."

After the shooting, a state police armorer examined Bernard's holster and gun. According to the district attorney's report, the armorer "found the tension screw on the bottom inside was missing and the holster was somewhat worn. He found the gun was loose while in the holster and that it could be easily removed with all safety devices engaged."

The armorer's report, which was provided to us by the district attorney's office, stated that when all the safety devices were enabled on the holster, it still took three to five seconds of "twisting, turning, and pulling" on the gun before it would come out. It's difficult to believe that Bernard wouldn't have noticed Reynoso spending several seconds trying to force the gun out of the holster.

It's also difficult to believe that Bernard didn't notice his holster wasn't functioning properly prior to the shooting. Bernard said he had years of military experience and was a police officer for seven years prior to the shooting. Hilton said both he and Bernard were required to qualify in firearms once a month because they were on the department's Special Response Team.

When Bernard was interviewed about the shooting, the armorer's report still hadn't been completed. When it was finished, the investigators never interviewed Bernard a second time to ask him about the questions it raised.

During the interview, Bernard also said the magazine was removed from his gun at some point during the struggle with Reynoso, which means it's not clear if Reynoso could have fired another bullet from the gun at the time he was shot. Bernard did not mention that the magazine was removed from his gun until he was asked about it. Bernard said he put the magazine back into the gun before it was taken to be analyzed.

The fact that the magazine was removed was never mentioned in the district attorney's report. In fact, the report states that Bernard thought he was going to be killed because he knew the gun still had 13 rounds in it when Reynoso was shot.

It is still unclear if Reynoso even fired a weapon at all because the gunshot residue test that was conducted for the investigation came back negative. In his report, the district attorney cited an anonymous "forensic scientist" who speculated that "when Reynoso was prepped for surgery, the cleansing might have removed the residue, and testing was done after 4 hours elapsed and is considered unreliable at that point." The gunshot residue report does not make any mention of the residue possibly being washed off or of the test results being unreliable. It merely states that the tests came back negative and thus "no conclusions can be made."

Records reveal more information about Reynoso's son

Denis Reynoso, Jr. (Source: The Lynn Daily Item)

The records provided by the district attorney's office reveal new information about Reynoso's five-year-old son, Denis Reynoso, Jr., who was present when the shooting occurred.

When the three officers were interviewed by investigators, they all denied knowing that a child was inside Reynoso's home prior to the shooting. However, their statements are contradicted by a report by Sergeant T. Hallisey, who spoke with Bernard shortly after the shooting. "They could hear what sounded like a child inside" Hallisey wrote, paraphrasing Bernard. "Officer Bernard fearing for the safety of the child was able to stop the door from shutting and entered the apartment." It's possible Hallisey's report is the result of a miscommunication, but none of the officers were ever asked about the contradiction when they were interviewed.

The records released by the district attorney's office also support the claim by Reynoso's fiancée Jessica Spinney that Reynoso, Jr. was covered in blood after the shooting. The blood was never mentioned in the district attorney's report.

Lynn Police Detective R. Tinkham, who watched over Reynoso, Jr. at the police station, wrote that he "saw [the child] had blood stains on his hands and arms and neck area." Tinkham washed the bloodstains off Reynoso, Jr. and they were never photographed or analyzed as evidence.

The officers claimed that Reynoso, Jr. was on a couch across the room from where the shooting took place, so there is no reason for blood to have gotten on him as a direct result of the shooting. The blood may have come from Bernard or Scali. Bernard said he picked up Reynoso, Jr. and handed him to Scali shortly after the shooting. He also said that he later patted Reynoso, Jr. down to make sure he wasn't injured. Given their close proximity to the shooting, Bernard and Scali may have gotten blood on them and transferred it to Reynoso, Jr. through contact, however, none of the officers ever mentioned the blood or were asked if they knew how it got on him.

Tinkham spoke to Reynoso, Jr., but the statements he quoted in his report were redacted by the district attorney's office, which cited the "privacy" exemption to the public records law as its reason for withholding the information.

None of the documents provided by the district attorney's office indicate that investigators ever conducted a formal, video-recorded interview about the shooting with Reynoso, Jr.

Reynoso, Jr.'s statements could have been important to the investigation because he is the only living, non-police eyewitness to the shooting.

How independent are district attorney investigations?

October 5, 2013: Jessica Spinney and other family members and supporters of Denis Reynoso rallied outside the Lynn Police Station to protest Reynoso's killing.

On October 5, 2013 – exactly one month after Reynoso was shot to death – a crowd of more than a hundred family members and other supporters gathered in Lynn outside the police station in protest. Jessica Spinney, Reynoso's fiancée, spoke to a sergeant at the station and handed him a petition calling for an independent investigation of the shooting.

Earlier that day, Peter Alvarez spoke out against the fact that the Essex County District Attorney's Office was responsible for overseeing the investigation, arguing that there was a conflict of interest. "One of the reasons why it's really important that the Essex County DA's Office doesn't run this investigation is because they are an interested party. The Essex County DA uses the Lynn Police Department's investigations to solve crimes. They have a very compelling interest to find that these officers did nothing wrong," Alvarez said during a speech on the Lynn Commons.

Documents provided to The Bay State Examiner show that the Essex County District Attorney's Office has a close working relationship with the officers involved in the shooting. The district attorney's office provided us with a list of court cases the three officers have been involved in.

Scali has been involved in seven cases in the few months he's been a Lynn police officer. Bernard has been involved in 127 cases. Hilton, the officer who shot Reynoso, has been involved in 243 cases.

These 377 cases do not necessarily represent the full extent of the relationship between the three officers and the district attorney's office. Assistant District Attorney David F. O'Sullivan wrote in a letter that "the data includes only matters that resulted in a criminal complaint or indictment in the last decade." O'Sullivan also said that juvenile court cases were not included.

A district attorney's ability to successfully prosecute cases relies on the credibility of the police departments in his district. If a major issue with members of the Lynn Police Department, or any of the other police departments in his district, were to be exposed, past cases prosecuted the Essex County District Attorney's Office could be overturned and pending cases might have to be thrown out.

The recent case of Annie Dookhan, the former state police chemist who faked lab test results in drug cases, shows that misconduct by a single individual in the criminal justice system can affect hundreds or even thousands of cases. It should therefore be no surprise that district attorneys have cleared the police in every single one of the 73 fatal police shootings that have occurred in Massachusetts between 2002 and the present.

Records that have not been released

The district attorney's office provided The Bay State Examiner with a large amount of material related to the Denis Reynoso shooting, but we were not provided with everything.

The district attorney did not provide us with recordings of 9-1-1 calls and police radio transmissions related to the Reynoso shooting. These recordings were not mentioned in the district attorney's response to our public records request, so we have asked for them again.

The district attorney's office refused to release video-recordings of the interviews conducted with non-police witnesses, citing the "investigatory" exemption to the public records law. Assistant District Attorney David F. O'Sullivan wrote that the police are not disclosing these videos because witnesses might not come forward in the future if they don't believe their statements will be kept confidential.

We have asked the district attorney's office to release the interviews in an alternate format, such as transcripts with personal information redacted. We have also told the district attorney's office that we do not believe the investigative exemption applies to three people who may be witnesses because they voluntarily spoke about the shooting with TV news media.

The district attorney's office also refused to release statements by Denis Reynoso, Jr., and photographs and video of the inside of Reynoso's apartment without first obtaining permission from the attorney for Reynoso's family, citing the "privacy" exemption to the public records law. Statements by other witnesses in police reports were not redacted by the district attorney's office, so we have asked for clarification on why Reynoso Jr.'s statements were withheld. We have attempted to contact the family through a mutual acquaintance to see if they want the records to be released, but have not heard back yet.

Documents

Update (4/29/2014): The documents related to the Reynoso shooting were deleted by Scribd after the district attorney's office failed to redact some private, legally protected information. We have since been provided with a new copy of the records which has the information redacted and uploaded it to Scribd. See here for more details.

District attorney rubber-stamps slaying of Denis Reynoso by Lynn police

October 5, 2013: Family members and supporters of Denis Reynoso rallied outside the Lynn Police Station to protest Reynoso's killing. On September 5 of last year, police officers entered the apartment of Lynn resident Denis Reynoso without a warrant and shot him to death in front of his five-year-old son.

Reynoso was an Iraq war veteran, former Post Office employee, and father. He hoped to get a job as a firefighter and was engaged to Jessica Spinney, who lived together with him at the apartment.

Since Reynoso was shot in September, family members and other supporters have organized numerous rallies to protest the shooting, most of which we attended.

After nearly five months, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett finally released his report on the shooting on Tuesday. The report claims that the police officers who killed Reynoso were legally justified, meaning that the district attorney will not bring any criminal charges against any of the three officers involved in the shooting.

The report, which is only four-and-a-half pages long, shows that investigators failed to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation and that District Attorney Blodgett was more interested in rubber-stamping the actions of the police than in uncovering the truth about Reynoso's slaying.

According to the report, numerous people saw a man exhibiting strange behavior and yelling at people, leading at least one person to call the police. Some of the witnesses identified the man as Denis Reynoso and a postal worker pointed the police to Reynoso's apartment. Police knocked on the door and followed Reynoso inside after he answered it. After the police entered, Reynoso grabbed one of the officer's guns and tried to kill to them, managing to fire two shots that didn't hit anyone. One of the officers then shot Reynoso, who later died in a hospital.

The report identifies, for the first time, the three police officers responsible for Reynoso's death. The fatal shot was fired by Officer Joshua Hilton and Officers John Bernard and Paul Scali were also present.

Police enter Reynoso's home without warrant

Blodgett’s report begins by citing a string of people who supposedly told police prior to the shooting that a shirtless man was yelling at people at people, beating his chest, and running after cars in the area outside the apartment complex where Reynoso and his family lived. The report does not provide the names of any of these witnesses or include transcripts of the interviews that investigators conducted, making it impossible to verify any of the information.

The report indicates that most of the witnesses did not know who the person was and could not identify him by name. The report claims that a neighbor identified the man as Reynoso. A postal worker also identified the man as Reynoso and said he recognized him from delivering his mail and because Reynoso used to work for the Post Office. The postal worker also told police that Reynoso was a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress.

While Reynoso's behavior may have been disturbing to those around him, it's not clear that anything he was accused of doing is a crime. Furthermore, there was no ongoing disturbance or threat when police arrived and none of the police had any firsthand knowledge of Reynoso's alleged behavior.

The report also indicates that Reynoso told the police that he did not want them in his apartment. According to the report, when Reynoso opened the front door to his apartment, he told one of the officers that he "didn't need his fucking help." Nevertheless, the officers, who did not have a warrant to arrest Reynoso or search his home, followed Reynoso into the apartment.

The report provides no legal justification for why the officers entered the apartment without Reynoso's permission. The report also fails to explore the issue of whether or not Reynoso had the right to defend himself against the armed strangers who barged into his home uninvited.

Investigators ignore crucial eyewitness

When the police shot Denis Reynoso, his five-year-old son was present in the room. The report states that the officers did not notice Reynoso's son until they saw him hiding under a blanket on a couch after the shooting. Jessica Spinney has said that her son was so close to the shooting that he ended up covered in Reynoso's blood.

While it's true that children are not as reliable witnesses as adults, Reynoso's son is the only living non-police eyewitness, making him a crucial witness in the case. However, investigators never bothered to interview him. The report does not even indicate that any attempts were made to set up an interview with him nor does it explain why he was not interviewed.

Instead of basing his description of the events leading up to the shooting on interviews with all the eyewitnesses, the district attorney simply based his narrative on the story told by the police. The report does not include transcripts of the interviews with the three police officers, so it's impossible to say whether the stories they told investigators were consistent with each other. The report never once questions the credibility of the police even though they were the ones the district attorney was supposed to be investigating for potential criminal behavior.

According to the report, the police claimed that Reynoso, an Iraq war veteran, was able to disarm Officer Bernard, place the gun against the side of Bernard's head with the intent to kill him, fire the gun, and fail to hit his target. This led to a struggle during which Reynoso managed to fire a second shot (and miss again) and was laughing, making threatening comments, and managed to point the gun at one of the officers again but did not shoot him. The report claims that Officer Scali was deafened by the second shot and bitten on the arm by Reynoso, but does not include any medical evidence that either of these things happened. The officers said they feared they were going to be killed by Reynoso, so Officer Hilton shot him.

The report claims that Reynoso was able to easily disarm Officer Bernard because his holster was missing a screw and was "somewhat worn," allowing his gun to be pulled out of the holster freely and quickly. The report does not explain how Officer Bernard – a trained police officer and former Blackwater employee – failed to notice that his holster was not functioning properly. It's also worth noting that Reynoso, who had experience handling firearms, had no way of knowing that the holstered weapon was unsecured, so the report's description of him "lunging" at Officer Bernard in an attempt to take the gun makes little sense.

DA's report explains away physical evidence

Physical evidence analyzed by investigators failed to corroborate the officers' claim that Reynoso took one of their guns and fired it, however, the district attorney attempted to explain the evidence away.

The report states that no gunshot residue was found on Reynoso's hands. Instead of concluding that Reynoso did not fire the weapon, the district attorney cites an unnamed "forensic scientist" who speculated that "when Reynoso was prepped for surgery, the cleansing might have removed the residue, and testing was done after 4 hours elapsed and is considered unreliable at that point."

The report does not explain why medical personnel – who were treating Reynoso for a gunshot wound to the abdomen – would have washed his hands. It does not indicate that investigators made any attempt to ask medical personnel whether or not they washed Reynoso's hands nor does it explain why investigators took so long to test his hands for the residue. The report also does not indicate that any of the three officers involved in the shooting were tested for the presence of gunshot residue.

The report also states that the gun Reynoso was accused of taking from the police was tested for DNA, however, the tests failed to tie Reynoso to the gun. The report still vaguely concludes that "[t]he DNA profile is a mixture of at least three people and Reynoso cannot be excluded as a possible contributor to this mixture."

DA's report includes irrelevant, prejudicial information

According to the report, the sole purpose of the DA's investigation "was to determine if the fatal shooting of Mr. Reynoso by an on-duty police officer was legally justified."

The report further states that "[t]o be a lawful use of deadly force, the actions of the officers must be objectively reasonable, given all of the facts and circumstances confronting them at the scene. The determination of such reasonableness is judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene and in that moment in time and not through the perspective of hindsight" (emphasis added).

Despite these statements, the report is filled with irrelevant information, most of which was not known to police at the time of the shooting. All of this information appears to be included for the sole reason of disparaging Reynoso.

For instance, the report states that when medical personnel were trying to tend to Reynoso after the shooting, he tried to bite a firefighter and acted "combative." The report does not attribute these claims to any specific witnesses.

The report also states that after the shooting, police "observed that the apartment, aside from the area of the struggle, had been trashed – furniture smashed and destroyed," inviting people to assume that Reynoso was responsible for the damage.

The report also states that police found a bag of marijuana in an upstairs bedroom after the shooting and that a toxicology report indicated that Reynoso tested positive for THC.

While the district attorney tried to paint Reynoso as a violent, mentally ill drug user, he made no such attempt to discredit the police involved in the shooting even though they were the ones he was supposed to be investigating for potential criminal behavior. The report does not indicate that investigators made any attempt to test the police for drugs or alcohol. The report does not say anything about the mental health of the police officers or provide any information about their disciplinary records.

Report does not explore how shooting could have been avoided

If we take the district attorney's conclusion that shooting of Reynoso was justified at face value, we are still left with the question of whether the shooting was really necessary. Even if the police did not commit any crimes when they confronted Reynoso and shot him to death, they still might have made mistakes.

Given that police knew Reynoso was a resident at the apartment complex and had reason to believe that he might have been suffering from post-traumatic stress and acting unpredictably, they could have tried to obtain contact information for his family from the property managers to try to find ways of de-escalating a potential confrontation with him. The police could have also tried to call mental health and medical professionals to the scene to assist them.

Instead, the report suggest that the police escalated a confrontation with Reynoso by following him into his home even as he angrily insisted that he didn't want their help.

The shooting might have been avoided if police had approached the situation differently, yet the report does not suggest any alternative courses of action the police could have taken or recommend that the police receive more training on how to deal with people suffering from mental illness.

The police department still has the chance to produce a report explaining how the shooting could have been avoided. According the DA's report, the shooting has been "referred to the Lynn Police Department for whatever internal administrative review is deemed appropriate."

However, Lynn Police Chief Kevin Coppinger has already stated publicly that he agrees with the DA's decision and that he doesn't think the officers could have done anything different.

"I do agree with the district attorney that it was justified," Coppinger told The Daily Item. "They went in to talk to the individual, and if somebody is acting in that kind of behavior, based on a number of witness statements, [the officers] couldn’t just walk away, both in the interest of public safety, people who may have been in the home and for Mr. Reynoso's potential well-being."

The only lesson the chief seems willing to draw from Reynoso's death is that he needs to buy better holsters for his officers.

Conclusion

Regardless of what the truth about the police shooting of Denis Reynoso is, it's clear that Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett was not interested in it. His report is a whitewash which ignores one of the most important witnesses, explains away physical evidence that contradicts the police, and is replete with irrelevant information that was included solely to disparage and discredit Reynoso.

Although the quality of the Blodgett's report is shameful, his conclusion that the police were justified in killing Reynoso after invading his home without any legal justification is unsurprising. The magazine CommonWealth reported earlier this year that between 2002 and 2013, there were at least 73 fatal police shootings in Massachusetts and district attorneys never once prosecuted an officer responsible for shooting someone to death during that time period.

Blodgett's investigation has not been anywhere near transparent enough to be credible. Blodgett should release all the information he collected as part of his investigation of the Denis Reynoso shooting to the public, including transcripts of all the witness interviews and copies of all the reports he cited.

Investigations of police shootings are colored by the fact that district attorneys have a vested interest in clearing the police of wrongdoing. Blodgett's ability to successfully prosecute cases relies on the credibility of the police departments in his district. If a major issue with members of the Lynn Police Department, or any of the other police departments in his district, were to be exposed, past cases prosecuted by Blodgett's office could be overturned and future pending cases might have to be thrown out.

The recent case of Annie Dookhan, the former state police chemist who faked lab test results in drug cases, shows that a single faulty step in the criminal justice system can affect thousands of cases. Years after Dookhan was first brought to light, her actions are still reverberating through the Massachusetts justice system.

A new investigation should be opened in Reynoso's death, but it should be conducted by an investigative body that does not have any connection to the Lynn Police Department.

Essex County District Attorney's Report on the Police Shooting of Denis Reynoso