Cop killer cites autism diagnosis in clemency hearing

ATLANTA — Lawyers for a man scheduled to be put to death Wednesday are pleading for his life Tuesday at a clemency hearing.

Gregory Lawler is set to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. Lawler was sentenced to death in 2000 for the murder of an Atlanta police officer nearly 20 years ago.

The hearing was the last chance to have his death sentence stayed, or commuted.

Channel 2's Steve Gehlbach was at the state Board of Pardon and Parole hearing in downtown Atlanta, where Lawler's side was the first to present to the board during the morning session.

The board heard from Lawler's attorneys, his brother and a neuropsychologist who specializes in autism spectrum disorder.

His application for clemency says Lawler has Asperger’s syndrome that went undiagnosed until just 3 weeks ago.

They argued that the syndrome affected not only Lawler's actions on the night he shot two Atlanta police officers, killing Officer John Sowa, but also his testimony and the way the jury reacted to it during his trial.

The state will argue Tuesday afternoon that the death penalty should be carried out.

One of the witnesses who will testify in front of the board is Sowa's sister, with whom who Gehlbach spoke on Tuesday.

"I want people to know my brother died a hero, and that part of me died that night. And (I) want them to remember the person that he was, that he was my brother, my only sibling, and how much he's missed," Kim Tagliareni said.

We're talking with Lawler's family for Channel 2 Action News starting at 4 p.m.

The board will make its decision either Tuesday afternoon or evening after hearing presentations from both sides.

Authorities said Lawler also critically injured Officer Patricia Cocciolone.

WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT

Sowa and Cocciolone were trying to take Lawler's intoxicated girlfriend home in October 1997 after he left her in a parking lot after an argument, prosecutors said. The officers escorted her up the front walk of the townhouse and knocked on the door.

Lawler opened the door and yelled at the officers to get away from the door. 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 woman lived there and that she would be safe.

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Lawler had placed an AR-15 rifle next to the door when he saw the officers arrive, and he grabbed it and fired at them as they ran away, prosecutors said. Lawler fired 15 times, using bullets that can penetrate body armor.

Cocciolone sent a radio distress call, and when other officers arrived, they found Sowa lying hear 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 had a six-hour standoff withLawler before a negotiator persuaded him to surrender.

Cocciolone was seriously injured, suffering gunshot wounds to her head, arm, pelvis and torso, and had to undergo extensive physical therapy. Despite the fact that she was still relearning to read and write, she was the prosecution's star witness at Lawler's trial in 2000.

GEORGIA NEARING RECORD EXECUTIONS

If carried out, Lawler's execution would be the seventh in Georgia this year and 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.

There are currently 61 men under death sentence in Georgia.

LAWLER'S LAST MEAL

Lawler requested a last meal consisting of ribeye steak, a baked potato with sour cream, asparagus, dinner rolls with butter, French onion soup, strawberries, pistachio ice cream, milk and apple juice.