Former St. Albans cop will go to prison for punching a handcuffed woman
In a highly unusual event, a Vermont police officer is heading to prison for using force while on duty.
Former St. Alban’s officer Jason Lawton was sentenced to three months in prison this week for punching a handcuffed woman in 2019.
Judge Martin Maley said that Lawton’s assault on Amy Connelly was a “savage beating.” But he declined to impose the six-month-maximum penalty, after Lawton claimed that he was suffering from PTSD after shooting and wounding a rifle-wielding man in 2018.
Maley imposed the three-to-six-month sentence at the end of a two-and-a-half hour hearing in Franklin County Superior Court. Maley said prison time was necessary.
“That moment in time where he severely injured this woman can't be ignored, and others need to know they're not allowed to commit these acts,” Maley said before sentencing Lawton.
More from Vermont Public: Former St. Albans cops pleads guilty to punching handcuffed woman
The simple assault charge, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison, stems from a March 2019 incident where, according to body camera video, Lawton punched Connelly in the face while she was handcuffed in a holding cell at the police station. Lawton remained on the force for several months, and wasn’t fired until a records request from the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont surfaced the video.
Former Attorney General TJ Donovan, who left the post in June, filed the case several months after Seven Days published body camera footage of the incident.
When Lawton pleaded guilty to the charge in May, the attorney general’s office said Lawton would face no more than six months in prison. During Wednesday’s hearing, Assistant Attorney General Paul Barkus requested the judge impose that maximum sentence.
“That reflects the drastic impact of what happened to Ms. Connelly in her life, the seriousness of his conduct, the need for some measure of deterrence and the community's need for respect to the law,” Barkus said.
"I had no intentions to hurt Ms. Connelly. I was not aware how the trauma from the 2018 shooting and the constant trauma from responding to calls had impacted me and the way it would impact how I reacted."Jason Lawton, former St. Albans police officer
Lawton’s attorney, Rebecca Otey, argued that Lawton shouldn’t get any prison time, in part because his actions were related to underlying mental health issues.
Otey had a psychologist testify that Lawton suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a 2018 incident in which Lawton and another St. Albans police officer shot and wounded a man who was walking around the city with a rifle. The man allegedly fired at the officers, according to WCAX. The AG’s office declined to file charges against Lawton and the other officer in that incident.
Otey told the court that Connelly's behavior, which involved kicking the doors of the holding cell, triggered Lawton’s PTSD.
Lawton did not speak during the sentencing. Instead, he submitted a six-page statement detailing his struggles with mental health, and the stress caused by his career in law enforcement.
“I had no intentions to hurt Ms. Connelly,” Lawton said in his written statement. “I was not aware how the trauma from the 2018 shooting and the constant trauma from responding to calls had impacted me and the way it would impact how I reacted.”
Judge Maley said while he believed that Lawton’s PTSD was an explanation for his actions, it wasn't a justification. And Maley said he was concerned that Lawton didn’t appear to accept responsibility for his actions.
“I really wish that Mr. Lawton had found himself able to show some remorse and some pity and some empathy for the victim here,” Maley said. “This was a savage beating.”
More from Vermont Public: AG reopens investigation into St. Albans cop who allegedly pepper sprayed handcuffed man
Connelly’s attorney, Evan Chadwick, said he was disappointed by the sentence that was imposed.
“This was undercharged from the beginning,” Chadwick said in an interview. “I've represented clients who have been charged with aggravated assault for far less with far less evidence, and have had far more significant consequences levied against them.”
Connelly sued the city of St. Albans in federal court, alleging she was subjected to excessive force and that the department failed to properly train and discipline its officers. The case is still pending.
Lawton is the second former law enforcement officer to be sentenced to prison this year. Earlier this month, a former Orange County Sheriff deputy was sentenced to 18 months in prison for an off-duty road rage incident where he shot at another car, according to WCAX.
But police in Vermont rarely face criminal charges for using excessive force while on duty, and when cases are filed, the officers usually aren’t sentenced to prison.
In 2017, a jury found former Windsor police officer Ryan Palmer not guilty of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, according to Seven Days. Palmer was charged by then-Attorney General Bill Sorrell after shooting and wounding a suspect during an undercover drug operation in 2014. In November, Palmer was elected Windsor County Sheriff.
Another former cop, Winooski police Cpl. Jason Nokes, avoided jail time after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to shooting a mentally ill man in 2013. Nokes received a suspended jail sentence of 12 to 24 months, and two years of probation, according to the Burlington Free Press.
"I really wish that Mr. Lawton had found himself able to show some remorse and some pity and some empathy for the victim here. This was a savage beating."Judge Martin Maley
While in office, Donovan reviewed more than two dozen use-of-force incidents and police shootings and filed charges in only four cases. Three, including Lawton, are against former St. Albans cops, and the charges came after the incidents received media attention.
Former St. Albans Police Cpl. Joel Daugreilh faces a simple assault charge for allegedly pepper-spraying a teenager who was handcuffed in a holding cell in 2017. Donovan reopened that case after Vermont Public requested footage of the incident.
The AG’s office also charged former St. Albans cop Mark Schwartz with simple assault after Seven Days published a body camera video of him using a Taser on a man about five seconds after arriving on scene.
Both those cases are still pending.
More from Vermont Public: Mental Illness likely factored in recent police shootings in Vermont, continuing a long-standing pattern
The day after Lawton was sentenced, the AG’s office announced it wouldn’t bring charges against a Ludlow police officer who fatally shot Michael Mills in August.
Mills, of Cavendish, made dozens of calls to police the night of the shooting, and after crashing his car during a chase, Mills allegedly told police that he wanted them to kill him, according to the AG’s office. Mill allegedly pointed a gun at Officer Zachary Paul, who then shot Mills in the head. The AG’s officer said Paul and the other officer on scene were in imminent danger of being killed, so the use of deadly force was justified.
There are still two police shootings from this year where the AG’s office hasn’t determined whether the use of force was legally justified.
In June, two state troopers knocked a man off a roof in Newfane using a bean-bag gun. The man suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized, according to state police.
In August, a Burlington police officer shot 20-year old David Young in the leg after Young allegedly rushed at officers with a knife. Young later told investigators he was trying to get the cops to kill him.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.