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What's Being Kept From Accused Hartford Officer?

Kevin Rennie

June 08, 2008

Police wield power, they don't challenge it. Judges hear appeals, they don't argue them. Hartford police Officer Robert Lawlor has been charged with manslaughter and assault in a 2005 shooting. His life may be ruined, his freedom taken, because of a finding by prosecutors and a grand jury that neither he nor his partner were in imminent danger when he fired his gun. But that finding is apparently contradicted by what his partner said to his supervisor the night of the shooting.

On May 7, 2005, Lawlor and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms federal agent Daniel Prather, working together as part of the Violent Crime Impact Team, approached a car in a parking lot near Main and Nelson streets. Lawlor, an 18-year veteran of the Hartford force, says he saw suspicious activity in the car. He approached it, with Prather following on foot.

Accounts of the next five minutes differ significantly. The car was turned off and then started. The occupants, passenger Jashon Bryant, 18, and driver Brandon Henry, 21, raised their hands and then lowered them, refusing to get out of the car. Lawlor thought they had a gun. Prather, an agent for less than two years, looked away from the car to figure out where he was so he could tell approaching backup officers their location.

Before backup could arrive, Henry started the car and, according to Lawlor, was headed toward Prather. Lawlor fired, killing Bryant and wounding Henry, who sped out of the lot, collided with another car a few blocks away, and ran away. No gun was found in the car, though cocaine was.

The Hartford police and the Hartford state's attorney's office investigated. The case was assigned to Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly. A one-man grand jury, Judge George Thim, heard testimony from 48 witnesses and reviewed 204 exhibits in four months.

The essential question was whether Lawlor was reasonably in fear for his own or Prather's safety when he fired the gun. Judge Thim found that Lawlor was not justified in shooting. A warrant for Lawlor's arrest was obtained in April 2006.

Lawlor and his lawyer, Michael Georgetti, have sought to shred the underpinnings of the state's case by attacking the grand jury investigation. The six Superior Court judges who approved the application for the grand jury are getting an unusual turn in the spotlight.

A few hours after the shooting, Prather and his supervisor in the federal agency, Dennis Turman, met. Early the next morning, Turman filed a report based on his meeting with Prather and his visit to the scenes. It related Prather's freshest recollection immediately after the incident.

Turman wrote, "Fearing imminent serious physical injury or death, SA Prather dove out of the path of the vehicle," and that Lawlor fired when the car surged. Connelly did not call Turman before the grand jury, though he knew Prather had spoken to him that night.

Prather, testifying before the grand jury months after the shooting, had a very different story than what his supervisor reported he said immediately after the incident. Prather told the grand jury, "I wasn't afraid of any imminent death or serious harm while I was standing there." Connelly did not ask him to explain Turman's report.

At a deposition of Turman last year, the state's attorney tried to undermine Turman to bolster Prather in order to send Lawlor to prison. Turman testified that he summarized what he learned that night. There's no recording of the interview Hartford police investigators conducted with Prather a few days after the shooting because Prather wouldn't allow it.

Lawlor wants to see Connolly's application requesting the grand jury. The panel refused to let him. The state's appellate court overruled them. The six judges, represented by a Judicial Department lawyer, took the extraordinary step of intervening in the case to oppose Lawlor's quest for all relevant information.

The application remains secret because Lawlor's appeals court victory was appealed to the state Supreme Court. The state has hired a prominent private firm, Rome McGuigan, to represent the judges, at "a significant discount from the firm's standard rates." The tab so far: $50,000 and rising. The judiciary's newly declared age of transparency has yet to blossom in important quarters.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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