In Lawlor Manslaughter Trial, Jurors Begin Deliberations
December 05, 2009
HARTFORD — - When Robert Lawlor became a police officer more than two decades ago, he took an oath to lawfully protect and serve the city.
With that, Lawlor was obligated to protect citizens — even if it meant using deadly force, as in the May 7, 2005, fatal shooting of 18-year-old Jashon Bryant, Lawlor's attorney, Michael A. Georgetti, said during closing arguments Friday morning in Lawlor's manslaughter trial.
"We give them a weapon, and we expect them to use the weapon to protect society," Georgetti said. "Police officers take no joy from using their weapon, but it's part of the job. ... If you shoot, someone could die. If you don't shoot, you could die."
In their closing arguments, prosecutors agreed that policing is a tough job.
But New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington, who told jurors he has spent his career working with police, reminded jurors of something:
"Police officers, just like the rest of us, have to follow the laws," Dearington said.
Jurors began deliberations Friday afternoon in the trial of Lawlor on manslaughter and assault charges. If convicted, Lawlor faces a maximum of 40 years in prison.
Lawlor was working a police sting involving drugs and guns with Daniel Prather, an agent from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, when, he said, he saw Bryant holding a gun as Bryant got into a friend's car, authorities said.
The officers approached the car, and when the vehicle began moving, Lawlor fired his weapon. The bullets struck Bryant and the driver of the car, Brandon Henry, who sped away from the scene and crashed into another vehicle, injuring the occupants.
Bryant died instantly from two gunshot wounds to the head. Henry, who was shot in the chest, ran away wounded and hid under a porch until police dogs found him. Henry told officers who found him he couldn't believe he "got shot over drugs," according to testimony. Police found cocaine in the vehicle, but they never found a weapon, and a grand jury recommended that charges be brought against Lawlor.
Relatives of Lawlor and of Bryant sat in the courtroom gallery Friday as attorneys presented their final arguments in the emotionally charged trial, in which testimony began Nov. 9.
Throughout the trial, Judge Julia Dewey has warned spectators about disruptions in the courtroom. Friday morning, some had trouble keeping their comments to themselves. When Georgetti called Lawlor a "great cop," a relative of Bryant's said, "yeah, right."
When Georgetti asked jurors to end Lawlor's "nightmare," saying, "Let Bobby hang up his uniform and let him go home to his family," someone sitting on the prosecution side whispered, "What about Jashon? He can't come home."
Prosecutor Kevin Doyle seemed to acknowledge the emotions on both sides.
"This case is a tragedy for everyone involved," Doyle said. "Nobody wants to be here today."
Lawlor, now retired from the Hartford force, did not take the witness stand in his defense. Instead, jurors heard his account of the incident from his grand jury testimony, presented by prosecutors.
In it, Lawlor says he perceived two threats that day: Either he could be shot by one of the men in a black Nissan Maxima that Lawlor thought might be linked to an earlier homicide, or Lawlor's partner, Prather, could be run over by the Maxima. Lawlor said he saw Bryant standing outside the Maxima holding a "small semiautomatic handgun." Bryant appeared to be "manipulating" the gun as if he was having some sort of problem. Henry, however, had testified that what Bryant was actually doing was searching for a $5 bill he had lost.
Lawlor said he tried to make eye contact with Prather, to signal him about the gun, but Prather was talking on his cellphone. Lawlor said he did not yell to Prather about the gun for fear the locals gathered along busy Main Street would tip off the suspect. Instead, he told Prather about a "signal 83," the Hartford Police Department's code for a firearm. Lawlor said he was unaware that Prather did not know the department's codes.
Doyle, the prosecutor, questioned whether Lawlor could actually see a gun from where he was standing, since he was more than 100 feet from the car and he was looking over someone's shoulder. He also questioned why Lawlor's warning about a gun wasn't clearer.
"Ask yourself this," Doyle told jurors. "Prather is on the phone with another agent. Why not tell him there's a gun in the parking lot? Get us backup. If [Lawlor] really saw a gun, why not?"
Doyle also asked whether someone who is aware of the police presence in the city's North End — an area where police respond to shootings, drug activity and homicides — would stand "in plain view of other people" holding a gun.
Georgetti asked jurors to put themselves in Lawlor's shoes that day.
An expert in the use of deadly force who testified for the defense said earlier that Lawlor had to make serious decisions quickly because it takes a gunman one-tenth of a second to pull a trigger and a second and a half for a police officer to draw a gun.
"Can you feel the tension, the fear?" Georgetti asked jurors. "It's the toughest call for any police officer to make. Do I use my gun?"
With 18 years of law enforcement experience, Lawlor, a former Marine, was able to recognize a dangerous situation, Georgetti said. And one of the elements of that danger, Georgetti said, was Henry, who had a criminal record and was on probation at the time of the shooting.
Georgetti said Henry, one of the state's key witnesses, was never prosecuted for any of his actions that evening. A gun, Georgetti said, could have been tossed out the window of the car or discarded while Henry tried to get away. Georgetti also criticized the way the police searched for a weapon, saying a gun "could still be sitting in a sewer," since testimony showed the sewers were never searched.
In their rebuttal of the defense's closing arguments, prosecutors displayed a photo of one of Bryant's thumbs with a wound a pathologist testified resulted from a bullet graze.
Dearington said the wound showed Bryant had his hands raised above the car windows, contradicting Lawlor's claims that Bryant's hands were going up and down as he sat in the car.
Georgetti said a pathologist referred to that wound as a "defect" in his reports about Bryant's wounds and, only after speaking with prosecutors, said it could have come from a bullet.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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