Gregory Lawler will be executed Wednesday evening unless the courts step in to stop what would be Georgia’s seventh lethal injection this year.
On Tuesday, after hearing from both sides about whether Lawler should be executed for murdering Atlanta police Officer John “Rick” Sowa, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles quickly turned down his clemency request. The board did not provide a reason for the decision, which came an hour after hearing from those who wanted his execution carried out. The board routinely does not explain its vote.
“My brother died a hero,” Kim Tagliareni of Texas, Sowa’s younger sister, told Channel 2 Action News before her appointment with the parole board. “Part of me died that night and I want them to remember the person that he was … and how much he is missed.”
Tagliareni of Texas; Sowa’s widow; Sowa’s patrol partner Pat Cocciolone, who was wounded in the Oct. 12, 1997, shooting; and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard were secluded with the five-member board for about 90 minutes Tuesday afternoon. They all plan to witness Lawler’s execution at the Georgia Diagnostics and Classification Prison about 50 miles south of Atlanta.
“It (the shooting) still generates a lot of pain for police officers,” Howard said. “This is something people will never forget.”
If he is executed, Lawler will be the seventh person Georgia has put to death in 2016, more than any other year since the current death penalty law was adopted in the 1970s. Only one other state, Texas, has carried out as many as seven lethal injections since Jan. 1.
Tuesday morning, the 63-year-old cop killer’s brother and attorneys met with the board for about three hours, trying to persuade the members to stop the lethal injection set for 7 p.m. Wednesday. They told the board that three weeks ago, Lawler learned he was autistic. They argued it was his then-undiagnosed autism that caused him to misinterpret the intentions of the officers who walked his intoxicated girlfriend home that night. They contend he thought the officers had come to his apartment to harm him, so he shot them thinking he needed to protect himself.
On a Sunday evening 19 years and one week ago, Sowa, 28, and Cocciolone, then 38, were dispatched to investigate a report of a man hitting a woman. Behind an Atlanta pawn shop near the intersections of Piedmont Avenue and Lindbergh Drive, they found Lawler trying to pull his drunken girlfriend to her feet. After Lawler walked away, Sowa and Cocciolone drove Donna Rodgers to the apartment she shared with Lawler.
Rodgers walked inside and Lawler tried to close the door. Sowa blocked it and asked if Rodgers lived there and if she was OK. Lawler responded by firing 16 armor-penetrating bullets from an AR-15. Sowa died just yards away beside a parked car. Cocciolone, gravely wounded, was able to call for help. Both officers were wearing bullet-proof vests. Their guns were still holstered.
After holding police at bay for six hours, Lawler surrendered once he’d cut off his long hair, shaved and put on a clean shirt.
Lawler testified at his trial in 2000 that he was justified to shoot because he felt threatened by Sowa and Cocciolone. According to his clemency petition, he also made that assertion when he was interviewed by a board investigator several days ago.
His lawyers wrote that Lawler has “often been mistakenly perceived as cold, callous or remorseless.” But his demeanor, they argued, can be attributed to his autism.
“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.”
» It’s now up to the courts to decide whether to spare Lawler’s life.
» So far, his appeals have been rejected. The U.S. Supreme Court will have the final word.
» Though a 7 p.m. execution time is set, Georgia does not move forward with lethal injections until all courts have weighed in, which usually puts the actual time of death well into the night, and sometimes into the early morning hours of the next day.