Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant  News Articles >

In Lawlor Case, A Neighborhood Also Was On Trial

Helen Ubiñas

December 10, 2009

The anger was evident after former Hartford police Det. Robert Lawlor was acquitted of manslaughter and assault charges for killing 18-year-old Jashon Bryant in 2005.

Bryant's father declared it open season on the city's young black men.

Friends suggested a call to arms to protect themselves against police officers.

Pictures: Vigil For Jashon Bryant

And a grieving sister confronted the man who killed her brother.

"That's my brother I had to see on that gurney with them two gunshot wounds in the back of his head," a distraught Shirin Bryant told Lawlor. The two faced each other on a Hartford intersection crowded with family members and cops as Lawlor made his way to his attorney's office.

"You did not only mess up one life, and take one life. You messed up my family. You probably destroyed me for the rest of my life."

It was a heart-wrenching moment. But what stood out that day were the words spoken by Brenetta Henry, the mother of the man who was in the car with Bryant the night of the shooting.

Pictures: Lawlor Found Not Guilty

"Lawlor was never on trial here," a sobbing Henry screamed outside the courthouse. "The whole North End of Hartford was on trial, our whole community was on trial."

Of all the things said in the wave of emotion unleashed outside the courthouse, those words struck me.

Partly because I wondered if she was right. Lawlor's defense team reminded jurors almost daily in the monthlong trial of what a dangerous place the anythinggoes North End of Hartford is, of the kind of lawlessness that the 18-year police veteran faced the night he fired two bullets into the back of Bryant's head as the car in which he was a passenger pulled away.

What else was an officer to do but shoot?

But more than that, I wondered if what Henry suggested was true. If the neighborhood truly was on trial, then what does a verdict that cleared an officer who shot an apparently unarmed man mean? Lawlor said he saw a gun, but none was ever found.

Does it mean, as a friend who until recently lived in the North End suggested, that the city's neighborhood is perceived as this pit where nothing survives, where nothing — and no one — is worth anything?

Given how so many view — and fear — the neighborhood, it's no wonder that an officer was given the benefit of the doubt, that an all-white jury weighed the evidence and came down on Lawlor's side.

But before we point a finger at suburbanites, truth is I've talked to plenty of Hartford residents who consider the North End a war zone that should be avoided at all costs, the city's dumping ground.

While Bryant's friends and family were still emotionally reacting to the verdict outside the courthouse Tuesday, Mayor Eddie Perez's office released a "statement of solidarity" that read more like a plug for "One City, One Plan," the series of community conversations meant to shape Hartford's growth and development in the next 10 years.

"Families have been devastated but we must come together as one city, one Hartford," the press release read.

That's just it, though. This isn't one city. Residents' experience in Hartford is very much dictated by the neighborhood they live in, by the part of town they call home, by the way people who sometimes live just blocks away perceive them.

Just consider the plans for a controversial homeless shelter in the heart of the city's downtown. In e-mails to a city council member, one of the many downtown residents convinced that the temporary, no-freeze shelter would kill economic development, offered alternative sites — most in the city's North End.

Was the North End on trial in that Hartford courtroom as Brenetta Henry suggested? No one but those jurors knows for sure. One juror insisted that the makeup of the jury did not play a role in acquitting Lawlor, that they never lost sight that a young man was killed that night.

"Jashon is dead and that's a tragedy. If anyone thinks he wasn't represented in that room, I can tell you, he was advocated for in that room," said juror Clay Rogers. "Jashon was in that jury room."

But given the perception that so many have of the neighborhood, it's no wonder that people who live there can't imagine that's true.

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 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?