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A City Officer Faces Arrest

Report: North End Fatal Shooting Was Not Justified

May 17, 2006
By MATT BURGARD And TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writers

Sterling Thomas watched from a distance as TV crews gathered outside the Ideal Market in Hartford's North End Tuesday after an investigation called for the arrest of a police officer who shot and killed a young man outside the store a year ago.

"It's good that they did this, but I doubt anything will change because of it," said Thomas, 16, a cousin of Jashon Bryant, the 18-year-old killed by Hartford police Officer Robert Lawlor.

"Maybe now the cops will think twice about harassing us just because of the way we look or the way we dress."

Still, Thomas and others admitted to feeling that the investigation's finding represented a small victory in the ongoing effort to improve the often-fractured relationship between Hartford police and the city's African American community.

"We hope this will lead to more accountability within the department, and more trust between the police and the neighborhoods," said John Thomas, an uncle of Bryant's.

Lawlor, an 18-year veteran of the department, could be charged with first-degree manslaughter and first-degree assault in the May 7, 2005, shooting - the recommendation of a report released Tuesday by Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly.

Lawlor would be the first Hartford police officer to face arrest in an on-duty shooting since Officer Robert Murtha was charged with first-degree assault and fabricating evidence in the January 2003 shooting of Elvin Gonzalez. Those charges are still pending.

But while Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez called for swift action, prosecutors said it could take several more weeks before any charges are filed.

"I fully expect that would happen in hours, not days and weeks," Perez said. "We've waited long enough for the investigation, and, in order to show confidence, you have to act expeditiously on these recommendations."

Connelly's report came on the heels of a grand jury investigation by Superior Court Judge George N. Thim in which 48 witnesses were questioned and more than 200 exhibits reviewed. The report pointed to several key findings in reaching the conclusion that Lawlor, who is white, fired at Bryant, who was black, without justification.

Connelly, who was asked to conduct the grand jury investigation into the shooting to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of prosecuting officials in Hartford, said the weight of the evidence gathered in the investigation made it impossible to justify the shooting.

"It's not a pleasant thing to determine that a police officer used deadly force in an inappropriate manner," said Connelly, who also prosecuted a white New Milford police officer who was accused of shooting a black man in the back in 1998. "We tried to give the officer the benefit of the doubt in this case, but we had to base the decision on the facts and the law."

Lawlor was in plainclothes working on a special task force in Hartford aimed at getting guns off the street on May 7, 2005, when, he testified, he saw Bryant toying with a gun while standing by a parked car in a parking lot.

Lawlor, who was working with an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, approached the car and ordered Bryant, who had gotten into the car, and the car's driver, Brandon Henry, to show their hands, the report says.

When Henry put the car in gear and drove forward, Lawlor fired five times, later claiming he thought he saw Bryant reach for a gun. Bryant was killed instantly, struck twice in the head; Henry continued driving despite being shot in the chest and later recovered.

Under a promise of immunity, Henry admitted that he was trying to flee because he had cocaine in the car and did not want to go to jail. But he said neither he nor Bryant had a gun. Despite extensive searches of the car and the area, no gun was ever found.

Connelly's report points to a series of contradictions and inconsistencies in Lawlor's version of events. Among them:

Bryant, who was seated in the passenger seat, had the tip of his right thumb grazed by one of the five gunshots. The wound suggests that, contrary to Lawlor's testimony, at least one of Bryant's hands was raised and in clear view of the officer during the shooting.

The ATF agent with Lawlor that night testified that he did not recall Lawlor warning him about a gun. While Lawlor testified that the agent, Daniel Prather, was unfamiliar with the Hartford police code number for weapons, Prather testified that he was familiar with the code number for a gun - "an 83" - and did not remember Lawlor mentioning it to him that night. Prather told the grand jury that he never considered himself in danger during the incident, and did not believe that Bryant and Henry were armed.

Lawlor testified that he fired first at Bryant in the passenger seat, and then at Henry, but experts, including forensic scientist Henry Lee, reconstructed the shooting and concluded that the first two shots actually struck Henry as he drove off, while the last three struck Bryant from behind. Hartford Police Department policy prohibits officers from firing at vehicles that are driving away from them unless the occupants of the vehicle are using deadly force against the officers.

Lawlor denied passing on information to other detectives in the days after the shooting about a confidential informant who had told him an unidentified drug addict had recovered a gun from the area where the shooting took place. Though Lawlor claimed he did not remember talking to detectives about the tip, some of them testified that he had. The informant was later charged with fabricating the story.

Members of Bryant's family, including his father, Keith Thomas, said they were pleased with Connelly's recommendations, while expressing hope that they will lead to charges against Lawlor soon.

"Basically, this report is telling us that there's a cop with a happy trigger finger still on the job in Hartford," said Bryant's uncle, David Gaines. "How can we feel truly safe, or truly satisfied, until he is behind bars?"

Community leaders, including North End activist and school board member Andrea Comer, said the report is the first step toward justice for the Bryant family.

"Our work will not be done until we have a conviction," she said. "I'm happy we've gotten this far, but we still have a long way to go."

Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano said Connelly's findings have been referred to New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington, who ultimately will decide whether to charge Lawlor. Dearington said Tuesday that he must first go over the transcripts and exhibits in the grand jury investigation before making a decision.

"I would say it would be a matter of weeks at this point," Dearington said.

Lawlor remains on administrative duty. If he is arrested, he will be suspended.

Lawlor was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but his attorney, Michael Georgetti, said he is disappointed by Connelly's report, and plans to contest any criminal charges that might be filed against him.

"Officer Lawlor ... disagrees with the finding that the discharge of a firearm was not justified," Georgetti said. "Officer Lawlor maintains he acted in full compliance with his responsibilities as a police officer. He has over 18 years on the job and is a highly decorated police officer. He is known by his co-workers and the citizens of the city of Hartford to be a fair and compassionate street cop."

In a prepared statement, Police Chief Patrick J. Harnett said the department "has cooperated fully with the investigation and will continue to do so as we await further direction from the Office of the Chief State's Attorney."

The chief did not return telephone calls Tuesday.

Before the Bryant shooting, Lawlor was best known as an aggressive street cop who helped bring down drug dealers and gang members during the height of the gang wars in the 1990s. He worked on various task forces with the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration and recently was assigned to work in the Hartford police intelligence division.

In 1990, Lawlor and Officer Anthony Martinez were cleared of wrongdoing after they fired on a carload of teenagers, injuring a 15-year-old. A police and citizens review board said that the officers were justified when they fired their weapons because they were returning gunfire.

Courant Staff Writer Jeffrey B. Cohen contributed to this story.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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