Providence, RI – A grand jury refused to indict a correctional officer who drove his truck through a crowd of protesters who were trying to stop him from getting to work at a facility that houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees on Aug. 14.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said that the 23-member grand jury failed to get the 12 votes needed to hand down an indictment against former Wyatt Detention Facility Correctional Captain Thomas Woodworth, the Boston Globe reported.
“The criminal justice system is not a perfect instrument,” Neronha told reporters when he made the announcement. “Sometimes it is a blunt instrument, and it is not a scalpel. There can be conduct which objectively is wrong yet doesn’t rise to the level of criminal misconduct.”
The incident occurred when anti-ICE protesters sat on the pavement blocking access to the parking for employees of the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, the Associated Press reported.
That’s when a uniformed correctional officer, driving a black pickup truck, arrived for work and wanted to get into the parking lot.
That correctional officer was later identified as Capt. Woodworth, and he resigned on Aug. 16, two days after the altercation, WBZ reported.
A video of the incident posted to social media showed protesters were sitting on the ground in a line in front of the parking lot entrance with their arms linked, chanting and holding signs, when the correctional officer arrived for work.
The video showed the pickup truck stopped abruptly when it got to the protesters, and then the driver blew the horn to tell them to move out of the way.
But instead of clearing a path for the correctional officer on his way to work, the protesters stood up and held their hands up to the truck, commanding the driver to stop, the video showed.
The protesters quickly surrounded the front of the black truck and when the driver honked the horn again, they began pounding on the vehicle’s hood.
Despite the brouhaha in front of him, Capt. Woodworth crept forward slowly and made his way through the aggressive crowd that continued to bang on his car and scream at him as he made his way to work, the video showed.
The protesters began chanting “the whole world is watching” as the pickup came to a stop. Then the surrounded the truck and banged on it and chanted.
Police officers who were detailed to work the protest failed to intervene in the melee, The Washington Post reported.
But other correctional officers deployed pepper spray to disperse the unruly crowd and Capt. Woodworth was able to walk into the prison after parking.
Never Again Action, a Jewish youth organization, said that the truck struck two of the protesters who refused to move out of the way, the Associated Press reported.
They said 64-year-old Jerry Belair suffered a broken leg and internal bleeding from the impact of the truck, and claimed another protester had been injured by the truck, but did not offer a name or proof of the injuries, the Associated Press reported.
Never Again Action also said three protesters were treated for pepper spray inhalation after detention center employees used the chemical to break up the crowd banging on the pickup truck.
The Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office promised the protesters a thorough investigation when the incident occurred, and the attorney general was the one who gave the protesters the bad news after the grand jury refused to indict former Capt. Woodworth.
Neronha said law enforcement had conducted an “extremely thorough” investigation that included interviews with more than 70 witnesses, according to the Boston Globe.
Investigators not only explored the former correctional captain’s actions that night but also those of the correctional officers who came out of the facility and deployed pepper spray on the crowd to help former Capt. Woodworth get inside the building.
Protesters complained about the way the grand jury was introduced to the evidence, the Boston Globe reported.
“Witnesses who testified before the grand jury, including those who were hit by the truck, reported that prosecutors focused only on the supposed ‘danger’ of unarmed protesters in an effort to justify Woodworth’s and his colleagues’ self-evidently indefensible actions,” the group Never Again Action complained.
But the attorney general maintained that he had assigned his best prosecutors to the case, according to the Boston Globe.
“You ask tough questions in grand juries,” Neronha said. “It’s understandable that there are instances when witnesses may read into the questions things that may not be there.”
Jared A. Goldstein, the associate dean for academic affairs at the Roger Williams University School of Law, was one of the protesters who appeared before the grand jury.
Goldstein complained to the Boston Globe that prosecutors “came in with an agenda to show this use of violence was somehow justified.”
The attorney for former Capt. Woodworth maintained that his client had no intention of hurting any of the protesters the night of the incident.
“People were pounding on his truck, it was a chaotic situation,” Gary G. Pelletier told the Boston Globe. “He believes the protesters are starting to move to get out of his way, and he goes forward, but there was never intent to hurt anyone.”