by MATT BURGARD
Posted on June 2, 2005
The families of two Hartford men who were shot by a Hartford police officer last month are pleased that a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., has been assigned to look into whether an independent, federal investigation of the shooting should be conducted, attorneys for both families said Wednesday.
Attorney Jefferson Jelly, who is representing the family of Jashon Bryant, the 18-year-old city man who was shot and killed in the May 7 incident in the city's North End, said Bryant's family, along with many other residents, are highly skeptical of the Hartford Police Department's ability to investigate the shooting fairly and aggressively.
"The credibility of the police department at this point is negligible," Jelly said. "The family is not confident that this investigation, as it's being done now, will be impartial and objective."
He and attorney A. Paul Spinella, who is representing the family of Brandon Henry, the 20-year-old man whose gunshot wound to the chest was not fatal, were encouraged when Kevin J. O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, informed them that he has referred their request for a federal investigation to Jessica Ginsburg, deputy chief of the criminal section of the civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice. O'Connor said Ginsburg probably would review the facts of the case, as well as the letters from Jelly and Spinella, before deciding whether to grant the families' request.
The families, through Jelly and Spinella, had asked O'Connor to open a separate investigation into the shooting and assume oversight of the case from Hartford police and Hartford State's Attorney James Thomas, who is supervising the still-ongoing police investigation.
O'Connor wrote that he was concerned that an attempt by his office to open a separate investigation might suffer from similar problems as the one being conducted by city police. In particular, he pointed out that his office has worked frequently in the past with Robert Lawlor, the Hartford officer who fired on Bryant and Henry after he approached their car in the parking lot of a convenience store at Main and Sanford streets.
Lawlor says he fired on the two men after he saw Henry, the car's driver, drive toward his partner, federal agent Dan Prather, who was working with Lawlor on a newly formed task force designed to crack down on the city's illegal gun trade. Lawlor also says he saw Bryant, sitting in the passenger seat, pulling out a gun, prompting his decision to fire. Bryant was killed after being struck in the back of the head, while Henry was able to drive away despite being shot once in the chest. Henry, who has since recovered from his injuries, drove for another three blocks before running out of the car and eventually being caught hiding under a porch on a nearby street.
Despite Lawlor's assertions, however, police were never able to find a gun in the car or in the neighborhood where Henry drove as he tried to elude police. The incident has escalated long-simmering tensions between the police department and the largely African American community in the North End. Lawlor is white while Bryant was black, as is Henry.
O'Connor said the fact that Lawlor has worked closely with his office in previous investigations, as well as the fact that a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent is now a key witness in the case, might give the appearance that his office could not conduct a fair investigation.
"We have a general concern that at some future point in time the impartiality and objectivity of the U.S. attorney's office might be questioned if it were to conduct a separate federal investigation," he said.
By turning the request over to Ginsburg, O'Connor said, he believes the families, as well as the rest of the community, can be assured that there are no conflicts of interest on the part of those investigating the shooting.
"I am fully confident that the course of action we have elected can and will satisfy all ... concerned parties that any criminal investigation ... will be free from the appearance of a lack of fairness or objectivity," O'Connor said in his letter.
Spinella and Jelly said the families welcomed the information from O'Connor.
"I think it's terrific. What we've wanted all along is to make sure this tragic incident receives a thorough review from those who have no vested interest in the outcome," Spinella said. "The stakes are so high, and there are so many implications that we owe it to everybody to make sure it's impartial."
Ginsburg was not available for comment Wednesday. Hartford Police Chief Patrick J. Harnett declined to comment on the families' request for an independent investigation, pointing out that the police investigation is under the supervision of Thomas, who could not be reached for comment.
Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, who has authority over Thomas and the police investigation, said he welcomed the possibility of a separate federal probe.
"Any set of additional investigative eyes would be appropriate as long as it doesn't interfere or hinder the ongoing investigation," he said. "It's critical that the citizens of Hartford feel that this is being done in a credible way, and that every effort is being made to be objective."