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Detective's Trial Comes Amid Trying Times

Helen Ubiñas

November 22, 2009

If ever there was a good time for a Hartford cop to be on trial, this might be it.

And no, I'm not foolish enough to try to predict the outcome of a case as controversial and complicated as the one playing out in a Hartford courtroom right now.

(Thanks for that teachable moment, O.J.)

But consider what we've already seen in the trial of former Hartford police Det. Robert Lawlor, accused of killing 18-year-old Jashon Bryant in 2005.

Exhibit A — Brandon Henry, the prosecution's star witness and a defense lawyer's dream.

There was liquor in the car, Henry testified last week as he described the night he was wounded and Bryant was killed when Lawlor shot at their fleeing car after the officer said he saw Bryant reaching for a gun. Weed, too.

And crack, which Henry — who was on probation for a previous drug conviction and is currently facing gun charges — planned on selling.

Oh, and when Lawlor and an ATF agent who were working on a task force to get guns off the streets in one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods approached the car, Henry took the first opportunity to step on the gas and take off.

Putting the victim on the stand and turning the tables against him is nothing new. Worked like a charm in the case of Officer Robert Murtha, another Hartford cop accused of firing at a fleeing vehicle. In that case, the victim — a felon who admitted drinking 12 beers, smoking marijuana and stealing a car the night he fled police — was put on the stand to show what Murtha was dealing with. Murtha was acquitted.

As I listened to Henry testify in Lawlor's trial, I couldn't help but think that this is just the picture of chaos and lawlessness so many have of Hartford. And, unfortunately, for pretty good reason lately — which brings us to Exhibit B.

In just the last couple of months, the city has dealt with fears of gang infestation, a police officer being shot and an inflammatory and ignorant comment from a woman who reportedly told a television reporter that the wounded officer would be better off dead.

Lovely. People are tired of it all, and not just in Hartford. Ever since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, there's this atmosphere that law and order must prevail — sometimes at any cost. And so a veteran officer trying to clean up Hartford's streets of drugs and guns shouldn't be punished for doing a dangerous job that many wouldn't do.

Let me be clear here: I'm not saying I think Lawlor — who faces a maximum of 40 years for manslaughter and assault — will, or should, get off. Taking the stand after Henry, the ATF agent who'd been with Lawlor that night testified he didn't recall Lawlor warning him about a gun. A gun was never found. And, according to the grand jury report, Bryant's wounds suggest at least one of his hands was raised and in full view of the officer when he was shot in the back of his head.

I'm also not saying we don't need more law and order in the city, where too often a few thugs drag entire neighborhoods down with them.

But the Lawlor case really should be about what happened one night, with one officer deciding to fire one gun.

My guess, though, is that people's feelings about the streets where a cop and a kid ended up on a deadly collision course are going to play a big part in the jury's decision.

What they have to make sure they're not doing is confusing empathy with justice.

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 |
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