Atlanta police Officers John “Rick” Sowa and Pat Cocciolone wanted to be sure the intoxicated woman got home safely when they knocked on Gregory Lawler’s door 19 years ago.
Within moments of walking Lawler’s girlfriend to the door, Sowa lay dead and Cocciolone was a few yards away, gravely wounded by a barrage of armor-piercing bullets Lawler had fired from his AR-15. Still, Cocciolone, her voice clear and steady, was able to call for help before Lawler walked over and shot her several times more.
The shootings, Lawler’s six-hour standoff with police, and Cocciolone’s sometimes public struggle to reclaim some of what she lost when Lawler shot her gripped Georgians for years after it happened in 1997.
Now, Lawler is scheduled to be executed Wednesday evening.
Unless the state Board of Pardons and Paroles or the courts intervene, he will be the seventh person Georgia has put to death in 2016, more than Georgia has executed in a year since the 1970s. If this execution happens, only Texas and Georgia will have put seven people to death so far this year.
“As most of you realize, the execution of Gregory Lawler is set for October 19th. We appreciate all the support we have received during the last few days. We would like to ask only for your love and prayers through this difficult time,” Cocciolone wrote in a Facebook posting.
Lawler’s attorneys will speak to the Parole Board on Tuesday morning, and those who want to see his death sentence carried out will meet with the board in the afternoon.
Defense attorneys wrote in Lawler’s clemency petition that he had autism, which was only recently diagnosed. That meant, the defense attorneys argued, that the jury and the board in its recent interview with the inmate didn’t see the real Lawler, but rather a man who was angry, who delivered “rushed monologues.” They wrote that his brain disorder is why he misjudged the situation when Sowa and Cocciolone came to his door, thinking they were coming to harm him and he needed to protect himself.
According to the petition, despite Lawler’s “obvious intelligence, there is something about how Greg interacts with others that is both alienated and alienating.”
According to court records and news accounts, Sowa and Cocciolone were sent to a gas station near the intersection of Piedmont Avenue and Lindbergh Drive in Buckhead to investigate a report of a man hitting a woman. They found Lawler trying to pull his girlfriend, Donna Rodgers, to her feet in a parking lot behind a nearby business.
Lawler left when the police arrived. Sowa, 28, and Cocciolone, then 38 and an 11-year police veteran, attended to the drunk woman, deciding to drive Rodgers home to the apartment she shared with Lawler.
Lawler greeted the officers who knocked on his door with obscenities, yelling at them to “get the (expletive) away from my door.”
Sowa tried to stop Lawler from closing the door once Rodgers was inside. Lawler grabbed an AR-15 and started shooting at the fleeing officers.
“I was calling out to John, but he never called back,” Cocciolone testified in the 2000 trial. “He killed John, and then he went back to me. He shot me a couple of more times. He stood right over me to shoot me again, trying to make sure I would die. But I turned at just the right time. Otherwise I would have died.”
Investigators said Lawler fired a total of 16 times. Despite wearing bullet-proof vests, Sowa and Cocciolone were both shot multiple times. Their guns remained holstered.
Police negotiated with Lawler for six hours, even after Rodgers had escaped from the apartment.
Lawler walked out unarmed at 4:50 a.m. on Oct. 13, 1997, after cutting off his long hair, shaving his beard and changing his shirt.
Inside, police found about 20 weapons, bomb-making instructions and paramilitary manuals. In contrast to the 6-foot-2, 200-pound man who had just shot two police officers, detectives also learned that Lawler had a master’s degree in business from Emory University, collected antique firearms, lived with more than a dozen cats, was an avid photographer and followed Sufism, which is defined “as the inner mystical dimension of Islam.” Until then, his only crimes were for DUI in 1989 and misdemeanor simple battery for hitting his roommate on the head with a camera tripod in 1991.
Almost three years after killing Sowa and critically wounding Cocciolone, a Fulton County jury convicted him of murder, aggravated assault on a police officer, aggravated battery on a police officer and using a firearm in the commission of a felony. It took them 5½ hours to find him guilty, and just as long to vote for death.