Michigan trial to focus on reign of terror that ended in sex ring leader's death

Georgia preparing to execute man who killed Atlanta cop

Kate Brumback
Associated Press

Atlanta — A man convicted of killing an Atlanta police officer and wounding a second officer with an AR-15 rifle is scheduled to be the seventh person executed by the state this year.

Gregory Paul Lawler, 63, is set to die by injection of the barbiturate pentobarbital on Wednesday night. He was convicted in the October 1997 slaying of Officer John Sowa and for critically wounding Officer Patricia Cocciolone.

If the execution is carried out, Lawler would be the seventh inmate executed in Georgia this year, the most in a calendar year in the state since the death penalty was reinstated nationwide in 1976. Georgia executed five inmates last year and five in 1987.

Georgia is one of five states that have carried out executions this year for a total of 16 nationwide. Texas has executed seven inmates, while Alabama, Florida and Missouri have executed one apiece.

Sowa and Cocciolone were responding to a report of a man hitting a woman the evening of Oct. 12, 1997, and arrived at a parking lot to find Lawler trying to pull his drunken girlfriend to her feet. Lawler quickly left and went to his nearby town house, and the officers decided to help his girlfriend get home.

When they knocked on the door, Lawler cursed, yelled and told the officers to leave. Once his girlfriend was inside, he tried to shut the door on them. Sowa put his hand up to keep the door from shutting and said they just wanted to make sure the girlfriend lived there and that she would be safe.

Lawler grabbed an AR-15 rifle and fired 15 times as the officers fled, using bullets that can penetrate body armor, prosecutors said.

When other officers responded to Cocciolone’s radio distress call, they found Sowa lying near the sidewalk and Cocciolone on the ground in the front yard. Both officers’ pistols were still in their holsters.

The responding officers got Lawler’s girlfriend out of the apartment, and Lawler finally surrendered after a six-hour standoff.

Lawler’s attorneys have argued that a diagnosis last month of autism spectrum disorder helps explain why their client acted the way he did during the encounter with the officers. That disorder, which wasn’t diagnosed at the time, caused Lawler to misinterpret the officers’ intentions and led him to believe he was in danger and needed to fight for his life, his attorneys have argued.

The disorder also caused him to behave in a way that may seem inappropriate when he testified at his trial and again when he was interviewed recently by investigators for the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, his lawyers wrote in a clemency application. Because of his autism, they wrote, he “has often been mistakenly perceived as cold, callous, or remorseless.”

The parole board, which is the only authority in Georgia with power to commute a death sentence, declined to grant him clemency Tuesday. Legal challenges remain pending in the courts, including one that challenges the constitutionality of the death penalty because of a “change in societal standards of decency.”