A St. Albans police officer punched a handcuffed woman in the face during a March altercation inside a holding cell, police video filed in Franklin County Superior Court shows.
Sgt. Jason Lawton has since been fired, according to St. Albans Police Chief Gary Taylor. The chief said he’s referred the incident to Vermont State Police to review for potential criminal charges.
“I think that his actions in this case are a poor reflection of the values of the people who make up this organization,” Taylor said.
Amy Connelly, 35, of Highgate, was arrested March 14 after she drunkenly ripped a man’s shirt inside Shooters Saloon in St. Albans, and then refused to leave, police documents say. Authorities leveled charges of disorderly conduct and unlawful mischief against Connelly.
She was taken to the St. Albans Police Department. There, she allegedly kicked Lawton in the shin. He charged her with simple assault.
But police video of the incident, captured from different angles and filed in court last Thursday, does not support the assault allegation, according to attorney Albert Fox. Rather, he wrote, in a motion asking the judge to throw out the charges, the footage shows Lawton assaulting Connelly, and represents “an absolute miscarriage of justice and a shameful abandonment of the duty police officers owe the public.”
Here's a view of what happened from several vantage points of police bodycams and security cameras.
Lawton's bodycam video shows he was eating dinner with a colleague when he stopped, walked over to Connelly’s holding cell, opened it and told her to stop kicking the door. She was in a holding area the size of a phone booth, with just a small bench.
“No,” she responded and stood up, her arms cuffed behind her.
Lawton shoved her against the wall with his forearm, causing her to cry out.
“Don’t come at me like that,” he said.
“How fucking dare you!” she yelled back. “He has hurt me!” she continued, speaking to another officer.
“Shut up!” Lawton yelled at her.
Connelly then stood up and appeared to raise her leg. Lawton immediately threw her back against the wall and landed an uppercut to her face while she cried and yelled, “Ow!”
“You fucking kicked me!” Lawton said. “That was real stupid, real stupid, OK?” he added, as he and two other officers threw her face-first to the floor outside the cell.
“OK? You understand me?” he said. “So here’s what we’re going to do. Now you’re gonna get an assault charge and now you’re gonna go to jail. Is that clear?”
At one point, Connelly cried and stammered, “Oh my God, you guys … You guys are brutes!”
“Yup, sure. You just tried to take me,” Lawton responded.
“You guys are animals,” Connelly continued through tears, repeating the phrase several times. “Why would you do this? You guys have abused me!”
At one point, Connelly told the officers, “My brother is on the selectboard,” an apparent reference to an official in Highgate, her hometown.
“Who cares? Lawton responded “I’m sure he’d be really proud of you.”
Lawton described the altercation in just a few sentences in his court affidavit, writing that he “delivered a front distraction strike to the right side of her face in an effort to gain control of her. This strike had the desired effect, as it distracted her from her aggressive behavior.”
Lawton’s report indicates that officers “immediately” called EMTs. She was handcuffed to a bar in the cell for about 10 minutes before medics came, the police video showed.
“She was eventually transported to the hospital,” Lawton wrote.
Fox, an attorney with Brattleboro-based Chadwick & Spensley, told Seven Days on Friday that a lawsuit “is on the table,” but that he wants to first focus on the criminal case against Connelly. Fox’s law firm is also representing three brothers and another man who have sued the Burlington Police Department in two cases stemming from separate incidents last September, both alleging excessive force by Queen City cops.
Fox declined to comment further on the St. Albans incident, saying, "The video speaks for itself."
“I completely stand by the motion and believe that this charge was a miscarriage of justice,” he said, referring to the simple assault case.
In last Thursday’s filing, Fox included photos of Connelly’s blackened eye and a “notice of prior bad acts” about Lawton.
That recounts an incident from 2012, when Lawton served with the Shelburne Police Department. In that case, Lawton pulled a man over for running a red light and issued him a ticket. The driver, Rod MacIver, contested the case in court. Lawton testified under oath that MacIver ran the light, but his dashcam video showed he hadn't. The judge tossed the case, which made international news. MacIver later sued the department; the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Lawton served in Shelburne from March 2011 until September 2014, when he joined the St. Albans department. In January 2018, he and another St. Albans cop opened fire on an armed man, shooting him once. About two months later, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced he would not prosecute either cop for their actions.
Seven Days was unable to reach Lawton for comment on Monday.
Taylor, the St. Albans chief, said Lawton “did well” and received honors for his work with the department, including a promotion to sergeant. Taylor said he first heard about the Connelly case when the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont sent a letter on May 23 requesting footage under the state’s public records law.
When Lt. Benjamin Couture pulled the file, Taylor recounted, “He came back to me and said, ‘I think there’s a problem here. We probably need to take a hard look at this.’”
“I was unhappy,” the chief said, about the video. “I was unpleased. I’ve been doing this a long time and that’s just not acceptable.”
He ordered an internal investigation on June 3 and fired Lawton on July 1.
“And on Friday, through correspondence with the colonel for the Vermont State Police, they’re going to assign a criminal investigator to look into the case,” Taylor said.
Adam Silverman, a state police spokesperson, confirmed Taylor's account via email. The department is "assigning an investigator to handle the inquiry," he wrote.
"Once complete, the investigation will be turned over for independent reviews by the offices of the Franklin County state’s attorney and the Vermont attorney general," Silverman said.
Taylor said he’s also been in touch with the Franklin County State's Attorney's Office about the termination and pending criminal cases involving Lawton as a police officer. The state's attorney, James Hughes, told Seven Days on Monday that his office would likely still prosecute Connelly because "she was already arrested and in custody before this happened, so the facts of her actions were over and done by the time Jason came in on the situation."
When Seven Days noted that Connelly had been accused of assaulting Lawton during the scuffle, Hughes conceded that the officer’s actions could affect that particular charge.
When asked about Lawton's traffic case in Shelburne, Hughes said it was the first he'd heard of it.
Despite that, and Lawton's firing from the St. Albans PD, the state's attorney said he'd potentially continue to use the former officer as a witness because "nothing with this accusation that led to his dismissal was a lack of truthfulness or a dishonesty situation.
"It was just abuse of power, abuse of force," Hughes said. "I now have to look into what happened in Shelburne to reassess that position, but until I do that, our plan was still to use him in at least a couple of the upcoming cases that he's got that look like they might go to trial."
Hughes said Lawton's actions were "out of character" with the officer he'd gotten to know. Lawton was a drug-recognition expert who helped get impaired drivers off the roads, Hughes said.
"He seemed to have a good head on his shoulders," the state's attorney said. "But I think his temper got the best of him."
ACLU of Vermont staff attorney Jay Diaz said Monday that he sought the footage after hearing from Connelly. He said he was dismayed that it took his request to expose Lawton's actions.
"Why didn't the other officers there put in a complaint? Why wasn’t this known about months earlier?" Diaz said. "Any use of force, especially one that required so many resources, should be reviewed by department leadership."
Diaz, who has investigated several instances of police brutality, described Lawton's actions as "abhorrent."
"I'm glad to see the officer is off the force and, hopefully, he won’t be able to bounce to another location," Diaz said. "Clearly, his demeanor and the way he acted was so beyond the pale. It was immediately recognizable that this is a person who should not be a police officer."