The Death Penalty Unjustly Targets the Poor and Disabled

By Elizabeth Broadbent

On October 19th, the state of Georgia executed 63 year old Gregory Paul Lawler for the October 1997 murder of police Officer John Sowa. A white man who killed another white man, Lawler also critically wounded another police officer, Patricia Cocciolone, who attended the execution in a wheelchair. He is the seventh inmate put to death in Georgia this year, the most since the reinstatement of the death penalty. The crimes were committed with an AR-15 rifle, the same used by the Aurora shooter, the San Bernardino shooting, and the Sandy Hook massacre.

Officers Sowa and Cocciolone were responding to a domestic dispute; they found Lawler “pulling his drunken girlfriend to her feet.” He went to his apartment, and officers decided to try to help her get home. Once the girlfriend was inside, he tried to shut the door on the officers. “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 opened fire with an AR-15 and body-armor-penetrating bullets. When officers responded to Cocciolone’s distress call, they found both officer’s guns still in their holsters.

However, Lawler has been diagnosed with something that most closely resembles Asperger’s syndrome, which, his attorneys said, “impaired his social interactions and judgments.” This explains both his crime, they say, and his damning testimony. Because of his disorder, he couldn’t read the officer’s facial expressions or body language and thought he was about to be killed. He had to take the stand to make a self-defense argument, and it was disastrous; he seemed to have no sympathy for the officers. The attorneys argued that because of his autism, “has often been mistakenly perceived as cold, callous, or remorseless.”

He refused a final prayer or a chance to say any last words.

So far this year, with seven executions, Georgia ties with Texas for the most in the United States. Lawler is just one more case of a man fallen through the cracks: a man disabled by autism spectrum disorder, yet executed by a state who refused to understand the limitations of his condition. Says the Southeastern head of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Lawler’s diagnosis is “convenient.” Why does it matter when the diagnosis occurs, as long as it’s an authentic one? It’s certainly inconvenient for the defendant, to say the least. But beyond that, shouldn’t it not just overturn his death penalty sentence, but possibly call for a new trial?

But Georgia has a history of executing the mentally disabled. In April of this year, the state murdered Kenneth Fults, an intellectually disabled black man, for the murder of a 19 year old white woman. He had a tested IQ of 74, ranking him in the lowest 1% of the population. In January 2015, the state executed Warren Lee Hill, with an IQ of approximately 70 and, according to his attorney, “the emotional and cognitive ability of a young boy.” In July, Georgia executed John Connor, a man with intellectual disability and a horrific childhood where “sexual and emotional abuse were the norm.” The list goes on.

We aren’t executing dangerous criminal masterminds. We’re killing the poor, the unlucky, and the intellectually disabled. Georgia only illustrates how the death penalty, as currently practiced in America, is unconscionable, and needs to be abolished.