By DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ A federal appeals court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in the case of a retired Hartford police officer who sued a former state prosecutor after being acquitted of manslaughter in an on-duty shooting death.
Former Officer Robert Lawlor’s case is scheduled to go before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.
Lawlor is appealing a lower federal court’s dismissal of his malicious prosecution lawsuit against former Waterbury State’s Attorney John Connelly, whom Lawlor accused of withholding evidence that favored Lawlor from a one-judge grand jury. Connelly denies the allegations.
The judge determined there was probable cause to arrest Lawler for the May 7, 2005, shooting that killed 18-year-old Jashon Bryant and wounded then-21-year-old Brandon Henry. A jury acquitted Lawlor of manslaughter and assault charges in December 2009.
The case sparked outrage among blacks in Hartford. Lawlor and all the jurors were white, while Bryant and Henry were black. Some critics of the verdict are now calling Bryant “Hartford’s Trayvon Martin” in online postings, referring to the Florida teen who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
In dismissing Lawlor’s lawsuit last year, U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall in Bridgeport agreed with Connelly’s argument that he can’t be sued for his conduct as a state prosecutor under the legal doctrine of “absolute immunity.” Lawlor’s lawyer, Norman Pattis, disagrees.
“Prosecutors are generally immune from lawsuits,” Pattis said. “In this case, Mr. Connelly misled a grand jury and thereby lost his immunity. We don’t see how anyone could conclude that a prosecutor should be above the law.”
Matthew Beizer, an assistant state attorney general representing Connelly, offered only general comments about the case.
“Mr. Connelly is entitled to immunity as a prosecutor from the claims,” Beizer said. “We prevailed in front of the district court and we’re hopeful we’re going to prevail again.”
On the day of the shooting, Lawlor was working in plain clothes in an anti-gun campaign with Daniel Prather, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Lawlor said he saw Bryant handling what appeared to be a handgun outside a market.
Henry and Bryant got into a car as Lawlor and Prather approached. Lawlor said that when he went up to the passenger’s side of the car, he was forced to open fire because he saw Bryant reaching for what he thought was a gun as the car sped off. Lawlor also said Henry, the driver, nearly ran him over. Police searched for a weapon but never found one.
Prather told investigators he never felt in danger and didn’t see Bryant and Henry with any guns.
But Pattis said Prather had told a supervisor that the car was being operated in a way that presented grave danger. Pattis alleged that Connelly withheld that statement from the grand jury, which Connelly denies.
An autopsy showed Bryant was shot twice in the head and Henry was shot once in the chest. A forensic analysis concluded the bullets that struck Bryant were fired from slightly behind him.
Last month, the city settled a lawsuit over the shooting with Henry and Bryant’s family. Terms weren’t disclosed.
Lawlor retired from the force before his trial. Connelly retired last year amid a fight with colon cancer and a federal investigation into his ties with a defense attorney, including trips to Las Vegas and whether Connelly gave the lawyer favorable treatment. Authorities won’t comment on the investigation, but another lawyer for Connelly denied any wrongdoing.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)