Ex-Hartford Police Det. Robert Lawlor Acquitted
By ALAINE GRIFFIN and VANESSA DE LA TORRE
The Harford Courant
December 9, 2009
Shortly after former Hartford police Det. Robert Lawlor was acquitted Tuesday of manslaughter and assault charges in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Jashon Bryant, the emotionally charged case reached a dramatic climax outside the courthouse.
In the middle of the intersection at Russ and Oak streets, Bryant's father and sister came face to face with Lawlor as nearly two dozen law enforcement officers looked on and traffic stopped.
"Even though you was a cop and you hid behind all that blue you're still supposed to be a human being," an angry Shirin Bryant, 26, said through tears. "All that time you knew my brother didn't have no gun. Why couldn't you be a man and say, 'I made a mistake?'"
Lawlor insisted that no mistakes were made when he fired at Bryant and Brandon Henry on the evening of May 7, 2005. The shooting killed Bryant and wounded Henry during a police investigation in the city's North End.
Lawlor claims that he saw Bryant holding a gun that evening. But no weapon was found.
Tuesday's verdict spared the retired officer a possible 40-year prison sentence and capped nearly two days of jury deliberations and a monthlong trial in Superior Court in which prosecutors accused Lawlor, 45, of breaking the law when he fired on Bryant and Henry.
The case stirred lingering frustration and mistrust of police and the criminal justice system among residents of the city's North End, including questions about why no minorities were selected for the jury.
Juror Clay Rogers said that although he and other jurors wondered why the jury was made up of only white suburbanites, he said that the makeup of the panel did not play a role in its decision.
"It wasn't a case of six white people acquitting a white police officer," Rogers said. "If that was the case, we would not have been there for days struggling with this."
Instead, the jury examined whether Lawlor's actions were justified, poring over such evidence as Lawlor's grand jury testimony, the testimony of experts on the deadly use of force who said that Lawlor's actions were justified, and testimony from a rookie federal agent working with Lawlor that day.
Rogers said the agent's inexperience and his lack of knowledge about the potential for crime in the city's North End left Lawlor "feeling like he was out there on his own."
Some jurors believed that Lawlor saw a gun, and others did not, Rogers said. But the panel did believe that Lawlor thought his life was in danger.
Rogers said that reason won over emotions in the deliberating room, but that Jashon Bryant was always on the minds of jurors.
"Officer Lawlor can get on with his life. 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. Jashon was in that jury room."
Concerned that Tuesday's verdict would spark violence, Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez afterward issued a "statement of solidarity," calling for "calm" on the streets.
"Families have been devastated but we must come together today as one city, one Hartford," Perez said.
During the trial, Lawlor never took the witness stand, but jurors heard the testimony that Lawlor gave to the grand jury in January 2006. In it, Lawlor said he perceived two threats that day: Either he could be shot by one of the men in the vehicle that Lawlor thought might be linked to an earlier homicide, or Lawlor's law enforcement partner, a federal agent, could be run over by the vehicle.
Lawlor said he saw Bryant standing outside the car fumbling with a firearm. Henry, however, had testified that what Bryant was actually doing was searching for a $5 bill he had lost.
After the bullets struck Bryant and Henry, Henry 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, who has a history of criminal arrests, told the officers who found him that 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.
Before the verdict was read Tuesday, all other courtroom business ceased and judicial marshals turned out in force with backup from state and city police.
Jury foreman Wayne Wilhelm could hardly finish reading the verdict to a crowded courtroom before Bryant's family and irate friends stormed out of the courtroom screaming and sobbing. Members of Lawlor's family embraced and kissed.
"A policeman has license to kill black people in our neighborhood and get away with it," said Keith Thomas, Bryant's father. "It was my son who got bullets put into him. [Lawlor] should be going to prison."
As Lawlor and his family remained in the courthouse, judicial marshals and state police escorted Bryant's family to the exit. The family's outrage spilled outside, where Thomas criticized the police, as well as the jury of four women and two men. "Where do we go from here?" Thomas asked. "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."
"You're guilty for being black," yelled Michelle Barnes, Bryant's cousin. She later shouted, in tears, into a cellphone: "[White people] railroaded us again! Again! ... They ... rob us of everything."
About an hour after the verdict, after the crowd outside the courtroom had thinned, judicial marshals escorted Lawlor's family through a rear exit. Lawlor and his attorney, Michael A. Georgetti, exited through the front and stopped to talk to journalists.
"It's been a tragedy for both families involved," Lawlor said. "What I am hoping to do, is I am hoping to take this tragedy, and I am hoping to turn it around and continue a dialogue with the Bryant family so this never occurs again."
Lawlor said he looked "square into the eyes of the jury foreman" as the verdict was read and he said he was prepared for either decision. "But I will say this much: It's been the longest 4½ years of my life."
When asked whether he was sorry, Lawlor said he "did nothing wrong. What I did do is, possibly, the worst decision a police officer or human being ever has to make. And that is taking another human life. On the other hand, I did take an oath back in the '80s ... and I did what I had to do that night to ensure the safety of the community."
The case also prompted criticism from Lawlor's side about whether there are abuses within the state's grand jury system. Lawlor said the system that recommended charges be filed against him was flawed. "I ask the public to be enraged that their tax dollars were used to defend this," he said.
Georgetti later added that the case should not have been tried in the first place. "The legislature should take a close look at the investigatory grand jury system and the abuses that take place within it," he said.
New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington said that although he respected the jury's verdict, he disagreed with Lawlor and Georgetti about the prosecution of the case.
"In this case, it was appropriate to apply for an arrest warrant," Dearington said.
When Lawlor finished speaking Tuesday, two dozen state police troopers and judicial marshals escorted him away from the courthouse down Russ Street, where he was bombarded with comments from angry spectators. It was during that walk that he was confronted by Shirin Bryant and Thomas.
Thomas was friendly with Lawlor throughout the trial and shook hands with the veteran officer, a gesture that Thomas said was a step toward helping him heal and reach forgiveness. In earlier court hearings, Thomas had displayed anger toward Lawlor.
On Tuesday, Thomas said he wanted to shake hands with Lawlor — but for a different reason.
"I'm going to shake your hand, [and] tell you, honestly, you got away with a crime," Thomas said.
"And that is your opinion," Lawlor replied.
Shirin Bryant reminded Lawlor of what she saw the night her brother died.
"That's my brother I had to see on that gurney with them two gunshot wounds in the back of his head," she said. "You never ever once said, 'I apologize for taking your family member.' Tomorrow is my brother's birthday. And I don't get to say 'Happy Birthday.' You get to go home to your family. You get to go home to them."
When pressed for an apology, Lawlor said he did not think he made a mistake. He seemed to want to talk to Bryant, but told her, "I don't want to talk in front of 50 people."
Hartford police then called for backup to clear the traffic, and Lawlor proceeded to his lawyer's office.
Bryant was invited in, but only for a few minutes. Later, Georgetti said that as Lawlor's attorney, he advised him not to say too much on the street.
"Is he sorry a young man died? Absolutely," Georgetti said. "He's been trying to cope with the fact that he took a life that night."
Georgetti said he thought that Tuesday's dialogue "was healthy for both sides."
Shirin Bryant, a nurse, said the exchange helped her send a long-awaited message.
"I waited four years to do that," she said "It felt good to confront him. I love my brother and I'm going to stick by him. I know he didn't have a gun."