On Oct. 12, 1997, Gregory Paul Lawler murdered Atlanta police Officer John “Rick” Sowa moments after Sowa and his partner, Officer Pat Cocciolone, escorted Lawler’s drunk girlfriend home.
Cocciolone, who was wounded and left disabled by the barrage of armor-piercing bullets, managed to call for help as her partner lay dead.
Nineteen years and one week later, Cocciolone used a motorized wheelchair to enter the death house at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison to watch the 63-year-old Lawler die. She moved to the front pew and didn’t budge during an execution that took about 11 minutes Wednesday.
Sowa’s widow, his sister Kim Tagliarini from Texas, and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard also watched as Lawler was injected with a fatal dose of the sedative pentobarbital, becoming the seventh man Georgia has executed this year. A contingent of officers from the Atlanta Police Department was at the prison, as well.
Howard sat a few feet from Cocciolone, while on the second row sat Sowa’s widow and sister, who both stretched to look at the face of the man who killed their loved one. Moments before Lawler was pronounced dead, Sowa’s sister put her arm around her sister-in-law and the two women rested their heads together.
Lawler, now with wavy gray hair and a disheveled white beard, kept his eyes closed throughout the procedure. He answered with an abrupt “No” when asked if he had a final statement, and again when he was offered a prayer.
He was pronounced dead Wednesday at 11:49 p.m.
The United States Supreme Court denied a stay of execution shortly after 11 p.m., clearing the way for Lawler to get the needle.
The lethal injection had been slated for 7 p.m., but executions are routinely delayed by last-gasp legal appeals. The Georgia Supreme Court announced Wednesday evening that it had denied late defense requests for a reprieve. And the state Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected a clemency request Tuesday that focused on Lawler’s recently diagnosed autism.
Lawler’s attorneys tried to save him by arguing that Lawler only recently learned he had autism. They contended the disorder left him “with diminished capacities that reduce his culpability in a manner akin to intellectually disabled and juvenile offenders.” Georgia law prohibits executing juveniles and those who are intellectually disabled.
The 1997 double shooting at a Buckhead apartment near the intersection of Lindbergh Drive and Piedmont Avenue was major news in metro Atlanta.
Howard said this week that Atlanta police are still shaken and “will never forget” what happened to Sowa and Cocciolone that Sunday night.
Sowa, 28, and Cocciolone, then 38, were responding to a report of a man hitting a woman. They found Lawler trying to pull his drunk girlfriend, Donna Rodgers, to her feet from a curb behind a pawn shop. According to testimony, Lawler walked home while the officers attended to Rodgers. Sowa and Cocciolone then drove the intoxicated woman to the apartment she shared with Lawler.
Lawler greeted the officers with obscenities and demanded that they leave. After Sowa blocked Lawler from closing the door, Lawler grabbed an AR-15 propped by the door and fired armor-piercing bullets at the fleeing officers.
Both officers were shot multiple times, yet Cocciolone was able to call for help. Sowa and Cocciolone were wearing bullet-proof vests. Their guns were still in their holsters.
Lawler let Rodgers leave the apartment, then held off police for six hours. He surrendered early the next morning after he cut his long hair, shaved, and changed shirts.
Testifying at his trial, Lawler insisted he was justified to shoot the officers because he felt threatened. And Lawler repeated that claim in his recent clemency petition.
Lawler believed he needed to fight for his life, his lawyers said. They blamed his fears on his then-undiagnosed autism.
Lawler would misread people’s faces and body language; and people, in turn, would misread him, the defense team wrote.
“Despite his obvious intelligence, there is something about how Greg interacts with others that is both alienated and alienating,” his lawyers wrote. “His flat affect. His digressions into lengthy, obsessive monologues on topics that interest him, all delivered in a rushed monotone that occasionally erupts into anger. And underlying it all, an almost palpable anxiety.”
Lawler was often “mistakenly perceived as cold, callous or remorseless,” his lawyers wrote.
Lawler’s execution is the seventh in Georgia since January, more than any other year since capital punishment was reinstated nationwide in 1976. Georgia executed five inmates last year and in 1987.
Texas is the only other state that has carried out as many as seven executions since Jan. 1.