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Execution date set for inmate convicted of murder

Execution Date Set for Gregory Paul Lawler, Convicted of Murder
ATLANTA, GA- An execution date for Gregory Paul Lawler has been set for October 19, 2016. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens offers the following information in the case against Gregory Paul Lawler for the 1997 murder of Atlanta police officer John Sowa.  In addition to the murder of Officer Sowa, Lawler critically wounded Officer Patricia Cocciolone.

Scheduled Execution

Gregory Paul Lawler’s direct appeal proceedings and his state and federal habeas corpus proceedings have been concluded. Accordingly, on October 5, 2016, the Superior Court of Fulton County issued an order setting a seven-day period of time during which the execution of Gregory Paul Lawler may take place. The period of time ordered by the Superior Court will last from noon on October 19, 2016, to noon on October 26, 2016. The execution has been set for Wednesday evening, October 19, 2016.

Lawler’s Crime (October 12, 1997)

The Georgia Supreme Court summarized the facts of the crime as follows:

The evidence adduced at trial showed the following: Lawler and his girlfriend, Donna Rodgers, were drinking at a bar near their Atlanta apartment at approximately 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 12, 1997. Ms. Rodgers was very intoxicated. They left the bar and began walking home when they had some type of altercation in the parking lot of a pawn shop. A person at a nearby gas station believed that Lawler was striking an intoxicated Ms. Rodgers with a bag. He drove to a police station and reported what he had seen. Officer Cocciolone and Officer Sowa went to the parking lot and observed Ms. Rodgers sitting on a curb with Lawler trying to pull her to her feet. Lawler left the scene and walked to the apartment when the police arrived. The officers did not pursue Lawler; since Ms. Rodgers was intoxicated and lived only a short distance away, they decided to help her get home. They placed her in a patrol car and drove to her and Lawler's apartment, which was a two-story townhouse-style apartment with a ground floor door.

They parked on the street, escorted her up the walk (witnesses testified that she had difficulty standing), and knocked on the door. Lawler opened the door and began yelling "get the f--- away from my door" at the officers. After Ms. Rodgers was inside, he tried to shut the door on them. Officer Sowa put a hand up to prevent the door from shutting and said they were just trying to confirm that Ms. Rodgers lived there and that she would be okay. Lawler grabbed an AR-15 rifle he had placed next to the door when he saw the officers arrive and opened fire on the officers as they fled for cover. A neighbor testified that she heard a young man's voice shout, "Please don't shoot me"; another neighbor testified that she saw Lawler emerge from the apartment firing a gun; and a third neighbor testified that she saw the officers running with their backs to the apartment during the shooting. Lawler fired fifteen times; the police found three shell casings inside the apartment and the remainder outside the apartment. A fourth neighbor testified that seconds after the shooting he saw Lawler standing over the crumpled form of Officer Cocciolone holding what appeared to be a rifle; Lawler then ran back into the apartment. Lawler had fired penetrator bullets, which can pierce police body armor. 

Officer Cocciolone managed to send a radio distress call and other police officers arrived at the scene. They found the victims in front of Lawler's apartment, with Officer Sowa lying next to a parked car near the sidewalk and Officer Cocciolone collapsed on the front yard. Both officers still had their pistols snapped into their holsters. Officer Sowa was shot five times in the back, buttocks, and chest, and, according to the medical examiner, died almost immediately. Officer Cocciolone was hit three times in the head, arm, and buttocks. Despite a shattered pelvis, damaged intestines, and permanent brain injury, she survived and testified at Lawler's trial. 

One of the responding officers, Sergeant Adams, peered through Lawler's front window and saw Ms. Rodgers sitting on the floor. He opened the front door and entered the apartment. While inside, he heard footfalls upstairs and the sound of a rifle action being worked so he retreated from the apartment and took Ms. Rodgers with him. After a six-hour stand-off, a hostage negotiator convinced Lawler to surrender. The murder weapon, the AR-15 rifle, was found in the apartment along with numerous other firearms and several different types of ammunition. Lawler's co-worker testified that Lawler had expressed his "extreme dislike" of the police and stated that if any tried to enter his home he would be ready for them.

Lawler v. State, 276 Ga. 229, 230-231 (2003)

The Trial and Direct Appeal (2000-2003)

On March 1, 2000, following a jury trial, Lawler was convicted of malice murder, felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault on a peace officer, aggravated battery on a peace officer, and two counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.  The jury’s recommendation of a death sentence for malice murder was returned on March 3, 2000.  The Georgia Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Lawler’s convictions and death sentence on January 27, 2003. Lawler v. State, 276 Ga. 229 (2003).  The United States Supreme Court denied Lawler’s request to appeal on October 6, 2003.  Lawler v. Georgia, 540 U.S. 934 (2003).  

State Habeas Corpus Proceedings (2004-2010)

Lawler filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Butts County, Georgia on January 9, 2004.  An evidentiary hearing was held on February 5-7, 2007.  On December 2, 2008, the state habeas corpus court entered an order denying Lawler state habeas relief.  The Georgia Supreme Court denied Lawler’s appeal on June 7, 2010.  The United States Supreme Court denied Lawler’s request to appeal on November 8, 2010.  Lawler v. Hall, 562 U.S. 1031 (2010).


Federal Habeas Corpus Proceedings (2011-2016)

Lawler filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on February 25, 2011.  On April 2, 2014, the district court denied Lawler federal habeas relief.  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of relief on December 10, 2015.  Lawler v. Warden, 631 Fed. Appx. 905 (11th Cir. 2015).  The United States Supreme Court denied Lawler’s request to appeal on October 3, 2016. Lawler v. Chatman, 2016 U.S. LEXIS 5701 (2016).