June 23, 2006
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer
The arrest of Hartford police Officer Robert Lawlor in the shooting death of a teenager prompted strong reactions from supporters and detractors alike Thursday, with those on both sides vowing to push through what promises to be a bitter and protracted court battle.
"We're in it for the long haul," said Keith Thomas, the father of Jashon Bryant, the 18-year-old Lawlor shot and killed during a confrontation in a parking lot in the city's North End in May 2005. "Whatever court Lawlor is in, I'm going to be there."
Lawlor's attorney, Michael Georgetti, said his client maintains his innocence and would not accept a plea offer if it meant admitting guilt.
"He intends to take this to trial," Georgetti said.
Lawlor, 42, was arrested Thursday afternoon at the state police barracks in Bethany, a neutral site designated by the prosecutor, New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington.
After being booked on charges of first-degree manslaughter and first-degree assault, Lawlor posted $50,000 bail and is to appear in Superior Court in Hartford July 10.
Lawlor is 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.
Lawlor's arrest comes a little more than a month after Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly issued a report concluding that Lawlor was not justified in firing at Bryant in a convenience store parking lot in Hartford's North End, even though Lawlor has said he believed Bryant was armed.
Connelly based his findings on a six-month grand jury probe in which 48 witnesses were questioned and more than 200 exhibits reviewed.
Although Connelly recommended charging Lawlor, he stopped short of applying for an arrest warrant and last month gave the report to Chief State's Attorney Christopher L. Morano.
Morano had asked Connelly to conduct the investigation to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of Hartford State's Attorney James Thomas, who works closely with Hartford police officers, including Lawlor.
Because Morano has also worked closely with Lawlor, he turned Connelly's findings over to Dearington, who spent the past five weeks reviewing them before deciding to apply for the arrest warrant. Dearington declined to comment.
Lawlor, who testified in the grand jury probe that he fired his weapon because he thought he saw Bryant reaching for a gun, was unavailable for comment Thursday. But Georgetti said he was disappointed that Dearington apparently agreed with the findings in Connelly's report.
In the weeks before the arrest Thursday, Georgetti had been critical of the report, accusing Connelly of ignoring key evidence that suggested the shooting was justified.
"I had been hopeful that Mr. Dearington would come to a different conclusion, but I did not expect him to," Georgetti said. "He was looking at the findings of another prosecutor and a grand jury, so he made his choice, and now we'll just let the process play itself out."
Hartford Police Chief Patrick Harnett said he was disappointed to learn of the arrest.
"It's unfortunate to see a police officer charged with criminal conduct while on duty trying to enforce the law," Harnett said. "Officer Lawlor deserves the presumption on innocence pending the facts of this case being heard in our state's judicial system."
Nancy Mulroy, a Hartford police spokesperson, said Lawlor would be suspended without pay now that he has been arrested. Lawlor is an 18-year veteran.
Jefferson Jelly, the lawyer representing Bryant's family, said he was pleased that Lawlor had been charged.
"We look forward to the logical conclusion of this case and seeing him convicted," he said.
But Bryant's father, Keith Thomas, said the arrest offers "small comfort" to the family. He said the $50,000 bail set for Lawlor was "ridiculously low" for someone facing manslaughter and assault charges, adding that Lawlor was arrested at a location that would keep him out of the media spotlight.
"It's ridiculous what special treatment he's getting," Thomas said. "I know people who have been arrested for dealing drugs with higher bonds than that. To me, it doesn't make any difference if he's arrested and he's out on the street the same day. Where's the justice?"
Many North End community activists welcomed the news, saying the arrest was necessary to help heal tensions between the African American community and the police. Bryant was black; Lawlor is white.
"There was a lot of waiting and waiting that we had to do, but now they've taken a step in the right direction," said Andrea Comer, a city school board member. "The community needs to have faith in law enforcement and the justice system, but that can't happen if people aren't forced to answer for their actions."
Bryant was killed while sitting in the passenger seat of a car parked at the corner of Main and Sanford streets. According to his grand jury testimony, Lawlor claimed he was standing across the street when he saw Bryant handling a gun while standing next to the car, and he and his partner, a federal agent assigned to an anti-gun task force, walked over to the car to confront him.
Lawlor said he and the federal agent had their guns drawn when they approached the car, which was being driven by Bryant's friend, Brandon Henry, 22. Lawlor claimed he fired after he saw Henry start the car and put it in gear and noticed Bryant, who had entered the car, reaching into the passenger seat foot well for what looked like a gun.
During a search of the car and neighborhood, police found cocaine under a car seat, but no gun.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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