MR. LAWLOR NOT GUILTY • Finding on the side of law enforcement in a difficult case
December 09, 2009
Former Hartford police Officer Robert Lawlor was found not guilty Tuesday in a manslaughter case that is every city's nightmare.
In May 2005, Mr. Lawlor, who is white, shot and killed Jashon Bryant, 18, and wounded Brandon Henry, 26, while working on a police investigation involving drugs and guns. Both young men were black. The jury was all white.
The post-verdict reaction from Mr. Bryant's family and friends — an outpouring of sorrow and racial invective — was understandable in the context of Hartford's rocky relationship between the police and the city's majority minority population.
Members of the dead man's family yelled at Mr. Lawlor outside the courthouse and followed him down the street. A distraught Keith Thomas, Mr. Bryant's father, said that "a policeman has license to kill black people in our neighborhood and get away with it. ... We still live in the slavery days. Do what you want to the niggers out here on the street, because you're going to get away with it."
Clearly, there's much peacemaking to do in Hartford before some — perhaps many — in the city trust the police and the criminal justice system.
But the system didn't fail. The shooting wasn't swept under the carpet in an in-house police investigation. Mr. Lawlor was held accountable.
Mr. Lawlor was known as an aggressive street cop who helped bring down drug dealers and gang members during the gang wars of the last decade. In 1990, Mr. 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 in shooting because they were returning gunfire.
In the 2005 Bryant-Henry shootings near Nelson and Main streets in Hartford's North End, Mr. Lawlor said he fired at the car bearing the two men because he thought he saw Mr. Bryant holding a gun and he feared for his own safety and that of his partner, Dan Prather, a federal agent. Mr. Bryant was killed instantly. Mr. Henry, shot in the chest, sped away and was later arrested. Cocaine was found in the car, but no gun.
The case was investigated for nearly a year by one of Connecticut's toughest prosecutors, who concluded that Mr. Lawlor's use of deadly force was not warranted. A grand jury recommended prosecution. Mr. Lawlor said after the trial Tuesday that the shooting on May 7, 2005, was the toughest decision he'd ever made. Jurors perhaps felt the same way. These are hard, hard cases. Clearing a defendant of a killing or sending him to prison for up to 40 years — the sentence faced by Mr. Lawlor — is an awesome responsibility. We can't imagine that the jury took it lightly.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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