HARTFORD, Conn. — A white retired police officer was acquitted Tuesday of manslaughter and assault for shooting two unarmed black men, angering the victims' families and prompting a call for peace from the city's mayor.
An all-white Hartford Superior Court jury deliberated for several days before returning the verdict in favor of Robert Lawlor, who killed 18-year-old Jashon Bryant and injured 21-year-old Brandon Henry in 2005.
Bryant's and Henry's families sobbed, clutched each other and screamed in anger after the verdict was announced. Bryant's mother, Cynthia, was so overcome with emotion that she was taken to a hospital by ambulance for observation. Police brought in extra officers and blocked off the street in front of the courthouse to control the area.
Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez appealed for calm, saying the city's young people, families and "those who are sworn to serve and protect" need residents' support.
"Right now there needs to be one voice for Hartford, and that is one of peace," Perez said.
Lawlor and a federal agent were working together for an anti-drug task force in the city's predominantly black North End on May 7, 2005, when Lawlor opened fire on a car speeding toward the FBI agent.
Henry, who was driving, was shot once in the chest. Bryant, a passenger, was shot in the head and died instantly. Henry, despite his injury, drove away and crashed into a car nearby.
Lawlor has said he fired because he believed Bryant had a gun, but no weapon was ever located. Henry testified he tried to escape because he had drugs, but not a gun, in the car.
Lawlor, who retired from the Hartford Police Department after almost two decades on the force, did not take the stand during the trial, but said afterward that the time since the shooting has been the longest 41/2 years of his life.
"I am absolutely horrified at the incident. It is a tragedy," he said.
But he stopped short of apologizing to Bryant's or Henry's families.
"Being sorry, to me in my personal belief, would be admitting some sort of wrongdoing. I did nothing wrong," Lawlor said. "I did what I had to do that night to ensure the safety of the community, the public and (the FBI) agent as well."
Henry's mother, Bernetta Henry, said her son, now 26, has recovered from his physical injuries but is haunted by seeing his friend shot in the head.
"They put our community on trial. The whole North End of Hartford was on trial. Robert Lawlor was never on trial here," she said.
Some said the shootings were reminiscent of the 1999 police shooting of 14-year-old Aquan Salmon, a North End teen killed by an officer who thought he was reaching for a gun. An investigation determined the teen had a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun, and investigations by local, state and federal authorities exonerated the officer.
Keith Thomas, Bryant's father, said the message he got from the verdict is that using a gun is an acceptable way to solve disputes in Hartford, at least for police officers.
Three years ago, he approached Lawlor during a court appearance and allegedly used a racial slur. Thomas was charged, but prosecutors decided not to pursue the case.
"My son's sitting in a cemetery, my only son, and they wonder why I had the attitude I had," Thomas said Tuesday.
Afterward, Thomas was among a throng that surrounded Lawlor as the former officer and his attorney walked a few blocks to the lawyer's office. The crowd grew so large that when it stopped in the midst of an intersection, Keith Thomas and Bryant's sister Shirin Bryant confronted Lawlor and asked again for an apology or acknowledgment that he had made a mistake.
"No mistakes made," Lawlor responded. Visibly upset, he added, "I'm not going to, in the middle of an intersection ... " before trailing off as police officers tried to get the crowd moving.
Keith Thomas then stepped forward, put his hand on Lawlor's chest and said: "You got away with a crime. I don't know how I feel about you. You devastated my family."
Lawlor and his attorney then invited Bryant's father and sister to meet privately with them in the attorney's office, an invitation they accepted.
The Rev. Cornell Lewis, a community activist and pastor of the North End Church of Christ, said churches were opening Tuesday night so people could vent their anger. City officials, including Mayor Perez, were planning to attend the forums.
Lewis said he worried about potential unrest — particularly after nightfall — if some people interpret the verdict to mean that police can get away with killing black people.
"When the issue is of race, logic and reason are the first two things sacrificed on the altar of ignorance," he said.