BENNINGTON — The charge of simple assault against suspended Vermont State Trooper Robert Zink was dismissed in Bennington County Superior Court on Tuesday morning.
Zink stood accused of using excessive force in an incident over two years ago, in which he responded to another trooper’s call for backup to arrest an unruly and intoxicated suspect. The case was dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning he can not be charged again.
Just minutes prior to the jury being ushered in to begin Zink’s trial, slated to take two days, Judge Kerry Ann McDonald-Cady heard an emergency pre-trial motion filed by Zink’s attorney, David C. Sleigh.
McDonald-Cady agreed with the defense’s argument that the state had committed a violation of discovery, not producing vital Use of Force Reports (UOFR), filled out by the officers involved in the incident on Feb. 23, 2021, that could have potentially exonerated Zink.
Use of Force Reports are required by VSP after any arrest made where the suspect is non-compliant. In this particular case, Christopher W. Campbell of Shaftsbury, then-42, was resisting arrest after Trooper Jeremy Sullivan, who has since resigned for unrelated reasons, suspected Campbell of DUI after witnessing him crash his truck into a fence and several mailboxes.
Zink and Trooper David Pfindel responded to Campbell’s driveway to assist Sullivan in the ordeal that took place over about three hours. In the probable cause affidavit submitted by Det. Sgt. Jacob Mateyer, lead investigator on Zink’s case, Sullivan described Campbell as feeling no pain, and becoming a “monster,” and that he was “kicking the (expletive) out of all of us.”
Sullivan also described Campbell as being very physically strong and that he seemed to have some knowledge of grappling.
Zink was accused of misdemeanor simple assault for striking Campbell in the head several times in the course of making the arrest. According to Sleigh, one officer can be heard on officer body camera footage shouting “Let go of my taser” seconds before Zink delivered the punches.
In January of 2022, Campbell filed a $25 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court, naming all three troopers – all of the Shaftsbury Barracks at the time – as well as several other unnamed parties. Campbell claimed excessive force, denial of timely medical care, failure to intervene, negligence and assault and battery in his 10-page lawsuit, which has been on hold until Zink’s case was resolved. The Vermont State Police were already dismissed as a defendant.
Sleigh stated that he had requested that the state produce the reports at several different points throughout the case – including after the jury draw on May 2 – only to be told that no UOFRs existed. Sleigh then received the reports from the state at 3:39 p.m. on Friday, May 19.
“The Court rules that there is no reasonable explanation why this discovery was not provided by the state,” McDonald-Cady said.
Cady-McDonald clarified on the record that she did not chalk this up to “bad faith or willfulness” by the state, but rather a lack of timeliness and due diligence.
Sleigh echoed that sentiment following the ruling, saying he felt that the prosecutor in the case, Assistant Attorney General Paul A. Barkus, was simply acting on bad information.
“I do not believe that Paul Barkus intentionally or maliciously tried to hide something,” Sleigh said. “I think he asked the case officer to find things for him, and that whatever search was done was inadequate.”
Barkus declined to comment after the proceedings, but offered his explanation to McDonald-Cady in court.
“(It was) last Friday that I got the email from the Office of Internal Affairs, with the Use of Force Reports attached,” Barkus explained. “So it certainly is the 11th hour, but I got them on the 11th hour. I wasn’t asleep at the wheel. I was surprised when I did get them.”
Barkus said he sent the documents over to Sleigh within a few hours of receiving them.
“I don’t want Attorney Sleigh to go to trial with one hand tied behind his back… I don’t want that to happen,” he later added.
McDonald-Cady said that both proceeding with the trial as scheduled, or delaying it further, would both be “prejudicial” to Zink. She stated that the short notice for the defense to prepare based on new evidence would be unfair to Zink if they chose the former, but that further delays for an officer that has been on unpaid administrative leave for over two years would also be a violation of his rights.
McDonald-Cady cited the need to schedule his trial almost four months from their pre-trial conference on Jan. 27, and that a continuance might mean a similar delay to August or September.
Zink elected not to speak with the press after McDonald-Cady’s ruling, but his attorney did say he wishes to return to duty.
“I’m hoping they’ll reinstate his pay immediately. What the Vermont State Police chooses to do after that, I have no idea,” Sleigh said. “He wants to be a Vermont State Trooper, always has. Fifteen years and never an excessive force complaint.”
When asked if he lamented missing the chance to prove Zink’s innocence in court, Sleigh said “From my point of view, purely selfishly, I would have loved to get a not guilty verdict,” he said.
“I’ve got two more troopers that have been charged inappropriately with crimes recently, and getting a not guilty verdict might allow the attorney general to have a moment of reflection. Charity begins at home, as they say.”