- File: Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
- Jason Lawton, right, with his attorney, Rebecca Otey, at an earlier court hearing
The assault, which occurred in a concrete holding cell at the city police station and was captured on video, helped expose deeper problems around policing culture and oversight in St. Albans.
"Others need to know that they're not going to be allowed to commit these acts," Maley said in explaining his ruling on Wednesday, more than three years after the March 2019 assault. "They can't come in and say, 'I was having a bad day. I was having a traumatic episode.'"
Lawton punched, pushed and dragged then-35-year-old Amy Connelly while she was being detained. He then cited her for assault because he claimed that she kicked him in the shin.
Lawton was not immediately disciplined for his actions. In fact, he posted an account of the charges against Connelly to the department's official Facebook page shortly afterward. It was only after the ACLU of Vermont requested records related to Connelly's arrest that the St. Albans police department investigated and fired Lawton.
In November 2019, the Vermont Attorney General's Office charged Lawton with one count of misdemeanor assault — to the surprise of Maley, who told prosecutors during an earlier hearing this year that the video evidence depicted several assaults.
The charge carries up to a year in prison, but Lawton pleaded guilty in exchange for an agreement that the state would not seek more than six months of incarceration.
At Wednesday's hearing, the state asked the judge to impose the six-month term. Lawton's attorneys asked for a deferred sentence that would allow the conviction to disappear from his record after a term of probation.
Connelly's attorney, Evan Chadwick, asked Maley on Wednesday to impose a yearlong prison term. Lawton should have been charged with a felony for aggravated assault, he said.
"I want to be very clear: My client does not agree with this charge, does not agree with this sentence," he said in court testimony.
Lawton's attorneys, drawing upon a forensic psychologist who examined the former officer, said he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by earlier experiences as a cop. Lawton and another officer shot a man in 2018; prosecutors later deemed the officers' actions were justified.
"The incident with Ms. Connelly was out of character for Mr. Lawton and the result of a perfect storm," attorney Rebecca Otey said.
Otey tried to persuade Maley that prison time would be counterproductive. It would harm Lawton's health and family, she said, and was unnecessary to deter other law enforcement officers from using excessive force. Lawton had already lost his job and experienced public shame when video of the assault — a public document — was "leaked" online, she said.
"There is no justice in destroying a person," Otey said.
The state, represented by assistant attorney general Paul Barkus, disputed that Lawton's actions were driven by past trauma and noted that Lawton had previously defended his punch as a justified "distraction strike." He said Lawton had handled Connelly like she was a farm animal and shirked full responsibility for his actions that day.
"Justice is a two-way street," Barkus said. "There has to be justice for Ms. Connelly and the community, not just Mr. Lawton."
Lawton did not deliver a statement in open court, but, in what the judge described as a "highly unusual" move, Lawton's attorneys provided Maley with a written statement from their client near the end of the hearing.
Maley was unmoved by the written statement.
"I really wish that Mr. Lawton had found himself able to show some remorse and some pity and some empathy for the victim here," he said. "This was a savage beating."
Maley took nearly 30 minutes to explain why he believed prison time was necessary, at one point suggesting the attorney general could have charged Lawton with a felony. A deferred sentence, Maley said, would have "minimized" Lawton's crime.
"I have a great appreciation and respect for law enforcement officers, and it's grown over the years. So to sit here and have Mr. Lawton in front of me pains me, frankly," Maley said.
He ordered Lawton to report to Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans in January. His attorneys indicated to the judge that Lawton would contemplate an appeal.
Connelly is separately suing the City of St. Albans, former police chief Gary Taylor, Lawton and another officer who was at the scene, claiming excessive force and other civil rights violations. A federal judge dismissed her claims against a third officer who was on duty but said he did not witness Lawton's actions.
Two other former St. Albans officers face pending criminal charges stemming from separate episodes of alleged excessive force: Joel Daugreilh, who pepper sprayed a teenager while he was shackled in a holding cell; and Mark Schwartz, who shocked a man with his Taser seconds after stepping out of his cruiser.
Then-Vermont attorney general T.J. Donovan had initially declined to prosecute Daugreilh, but he reopened the case following a records request from Vermont Public and swirling publicity around Lawton.
Daugreilh and Schwartz have scheduled court hearings in January.