June 14, 2006
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer
A prosecutor responsible for determining if Hartford police Officer Robert Lawlor should face criminal charges in last year's fatal shooting of a teenager visited the scene last week, sparking concern in the victim's family that the prosecutor may opt not to follow the recommendation of a recent grand jury investigation and report that Lawlor should be arrested.
New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington declined to comment on his visit to the convenience store parking lot in the city's North End where 18-year-old Jashon Bryant was gunned down in a confrontation with Lawlor in May of last year.
But Bryant's father, Keith Thomas, who went along with Dearington, said the prosecutor apparently wanted to get a visual sense of how the shooting unfolded. Dearington was also accompanied by several officials close to the case, including Hartford police officers who initially investigated the shooting, according to Thomas.
During the visit, Thomas said, Dearington assured him that he would decide whether to arrest Lawlor within the next two weeks. But Thomas said he worries that Dearington might not agree with the findings of a grand jury probe and report that recommended that Lawlor should be charged in the shooting.
"I'm tired of waiting," Thomas said. "It seems like everyone is scared to just go and arrest this guy. If he wasn't a police officer, I doubt he'd get a second investigation."
Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano said he understood concerns that the process appears to be dragging on, but emphasized prosecutors are making sure there are no appearances of favoritism. He said Dearington is not conducting a second inquiry, but only taking the necessary time to review the findings and evidence of the original investigation.
In mid-May, Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly released the findings of a six-month grand jury investigation into the shooting. Connelly's report concluded that Lawlor, an 18-year veteran of the Hartford force, was not justified in his decision to open fire on Bryant, who was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car.
Lawlor's attorney, Michael Georgetti, said he was heartened to learn that Dearington showed up at the shooting scene last week, taking it as a sign that Dearington is relying on more than Connelly's report. Georgetti has criticized Connelly for ignoring evidence that he claims could have exonerated Lawlor.
"I'm hopeful that Mr. Dearington will look at all, and I emphasize all, the evidence in this case," Georgetti said. "If he does, I'm confident he will come to a different conclusion than Mr. Connelly did."
Lawlor had testified that he thought he saw Bryant handling a gun shortly before he and his partner, a federal agent, approached the car and ordered him to put his hands up. A friend of Bryant's who was in the driver's seat, Brandon Henry, put the car in gear and drove forward as Lawlor opened fire.
Bryant was shot twice in the back of the head, killing him instantly, while Henry was able to drive away despite being shot in the chest. He eventually recovered.
Despite an extensive search of the car and the surrounding neighborhood, no gun was ever found. Based on that fact, as well as statements from the federal agent that he didn't believe Bryant was armed, Connelly concluded Lawlor should face charges of manslaughter and assault in the incident.
Despite his findings, Connelly stopped short of charging Lawlor, instead passing his report to Morano. Connelly said Morano asked him to conduct the probe to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of Hartford State's Attorney James Thomas, who regularly works closely with Hartford officers.
After finishing his report, Connelly told Morano that he felt he had done his job, adding that, as the chief prosecutor in Waterbury, his plate was too full to take on the added responsibility of arresting Lawlor.
But because Morano, a former Hartford prosecutor, has also worked closely with Lawlor, he decided to pass Connelly's report on to Dearington. Since then, Dearington has been reviewing the records of the grand jury investigation, as well as contacting people involved in the case, before deciding if he should apply for an arrest warrant against Lawlor.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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