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Former St. Albans cop pleads guilty to punching handcuffed woman

The St. Albans Police Department
A former St. Albans police officer pleaded guilty on Wednesday to punching a woman who was handcuffed in a holding cell.

A former St. Albans police officer pleaded guilty Wednesday to punching a woman who was handcuffed in a holding cell. A sentencing hearing will take place later this summer.

Jason Lawton will face no more than six months in prison, and could face punishment other than incarceration, Assistant Attorney General Paul Barkus said during the change-of-plea hearing.

“If the court would decide something other than a period of incarnation would be appropriate or even a split sentence, the state and the defendant have outlined some probation and special probation conditions that would be beneficial to Mr. Lawton in the resolution of this case,” Barkus said.

The simple assault charge, a misdemeanor, stems from a March 2019 incident where, according to a video first published by Seven Days, Lawton punched Amy Connelly in the face while she was handcuffed in a holding cell at the St. Albans Police Dtation.

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, though court records indicate that the St. Albans police chief was told about the incident shortly after it occurred.

Attorney General TJ Donovan brought the assault charge against Lawton in Nov. 2019, several months after Seven Days first published its story.

More from VPR: Woman punched by St. Albans cop sues over excessive force allegations

During the hearing on Wednesday, Judge Martin Maley questioned why the attorney general’s office had only charged Lawton with a single misdemeanor.

“I was wondering, and maybe this is neither here nor there attorney Barkus, but why wasn’t this charged as a felony from the get-go here or multiple misdemeanors?” Maley said.

Barkus, the assistant attorney general, told the judge the charging decision came down to the fact that there was only one punch.

“And I think in large part, the decision rested on that,” he said.

Malley then pointed out that by his count there were multiple assaults that occurred during the incident.

“I don’t get to charge cases, but I was curious — it appears the pushing into the wall times two, the punching of the victim and then dragging of the victim out where she hits her head on the ground, I count four assaults,” Maley said. “But again it’s the state’s decision as to how this case was charged.”

Connelly, the woman who was punched in the face, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Albans, alleging that she was subject to excessive force and that the city failed to properly train and discipline its police officers. That suit is still pending.

Police in Vermont and the rest of the country rarely face charges for using excessive force. Donovan has reviewed 29 use-of-force incidents since taking office in 2017 and brought charges in four cases. Three, including Lawton's, are against former St. Albans cops, and those charges came after the incidents received media attention.

More from VPR: AG reopens investigation into St. Albans cop who allegedly pepper sprayed handcuffed man

The other cases Donovan’s office has filed against law enforcement officers are still pending.

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. Nathan Willey, who was 18 at the time, had been detained on several charges, including domestic assault.

Police handcuffed and shackled Willey in the holding cell, according to court records. When Willey didn’t follow orders to stop kicking the cell door, Daugreilh, court records say, pushed Willey’s head back and deployed pepper spray into the teen’s eyes.

The city launched an investigation into the incident shortly after if occurred and referred the case to the Vermont State Police and attorney general’s office. Daugreilh resigned amid the city’s internal review.

Donovan declined to bring charges in 2017, but he reopened the investigation in January 2020 after VPR requested documents and video of the incident.

Daugreilh has pleaded not guilty, and in a recent court filing his lawyer asked for the case to be dismissed, alleging that his right to a speedy trial has been violated.

“[Daugreilh] has had a misdemeanor hanging over his head for more than a year and a half. What is more, the incident giving rise to this charge of simple assault occurred over four years ago,” his attorney wrote in a motion filed in January.

The attorney general’s office, in court filings, argued that the delay was largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A judge has not issued a ruling on the motion.

Another former St. Albans cop, Cpl. Mark Schwartz, faces charges over an incident where he used a Taser on a man about five seconds after arriving on the scene, according to body camera footage first published by Seven Days in 2020.

The St. Albans Police Department found Schwartz’s actions didn’t violate any policies, though he resigned from the force in March 2020 after an internal review turned up another concerning incident, Seven Days reported. Schwartz has pleaded not guilty to the pending assault charge.

The attorney general's office also filed an assault charge against state police trooper Robert Zink, who’s accused of punching a handcuffed man in the head.

According to court records, Zink and two other troopers were trying to detain Christoper Campbell for suspected drunk driving. Campbell was combative and court records say he tried to kick the troopers while he was handcuffed and held face down on the ground.

Zink told investigators that he hit Campbell in the thigh, buttocks and head after Campbell trapped his leg and ignored orders to release it. But the other troopers later raised concerns about Zink’s use of force, specifically the head strikes. One trooper, according to court documents, said the final punch to Campbell’s head sounded “like a bowling ball hitting the ground.”

Zink has pleaded not guilty. A spokesperson for the state police said Zink is currently on unpaid leave.

Campell filed a federal lawsuit in January alleging that he was subject to excessive force. That case is pending.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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