The sign on the seats said RESERVED. In groups of three and four, weathered detectives and uniformed officers passed the benches in the front row. Badges dangled around necks. Weapons had been checked at security downstairs. The federal courtroom filled until the newest on the job were leaning against the classic aged wood paneling. Still the front row sat empty - RESERVED.
It turns out if you attend a legal proceeding for a man who shot a Syracuse Police Officer you don't want to be the one sitting in the front row. If you are in front that means you have felt anguish that is nearly too much to bear. Just ask the mother of Wallie Howard Jr. She took her seat in the reserved section just minutes before the bailiff called the session to order.
Delores Howard was joined by her daughter Shelley on one side and her grandson Wallie Howard III on the other. Sitting a few seats down, Officer Howard's partner in the SPD Deputy Chief Rebecca Thompson.
The room was charged. The thermostat had been set too high. The stakes were higher. Federal Marshalls escorted 40 year old Robert "Bam Bam" Lawrence through the door. His hands cuffed. His ankles manacled. The walked him within arm's reach of that reserved front row.
Lawrence was no longer the 16 year old who shot Howard as he worked as an agent of the Central New York Drug Task Force. His clean shaven head and trimmed goatee were fitting for a man now 23 years older. He seemed wider and shorter than when we last saw him in the 1990's.
The strong voice of Judge David Hurd immediately made clear who was in charge as he sentencing hearing commenced. Public defender Lisa Peebles was first to present. She explained how her office notified Lawrence a year ago that the new Supreme Court ruling might open a window to a reduction in his mandated sentence of life without parole.
Peebles detailed how Lawrence grew up without parents. He ultimately moved from Brooklyn to live in Syracuse with fellow members of a drug ring selling cocaine. This difficult upbringing was later cited by the judge as a mitigating factor for reducing the sentence to 30 years.
The government took its turn. Assistant U.S. Attorney Grant Jaquith methodically recalled the facts of October 30th, 1990 when Lawrence was part of a plot to rob the drug buyer who they did not know was undercover agent Howard. Jaquith described how Lawrence was seen calmly walking through the parking lot of Mario's Big M after firing a bullet through the back of Officer Howard's head.
Then it was time for the front row to come forward. Shelley Howard was first. She read from a prepared statement. She recalled the tights and dress she wore to work on October 30th, 1990. How her younger brother came to work to tell her Junior had been shot. She talked about her brother bleeding out at Upstate. She then set aside the remarks and turned directly to the shooter. She said, "You killed my brother with a gunshot wound to the back of the head." Shelley wanted "Bam Bam" Lawrence to acknowledge what he had done. This frail woman who walks with a cane wanted Lawrence to begin to comprehend the scope of the damage he had wrought.
Her rage and emotion rang out. The courtroom had gone silent except for sniffling as hardened men wiped away tears. Somewhere in the anger over her the loss of her brother Shelley found enough compassion to make a demand of Robert Lawrence. She pleaded with him to make something of any life he might one day experience on the outside again. She does not want her brother's death to be in vain.
Deputy Chief Rebecca Thompson also took a turn. A ribbon bearing badge number 415 was displayed on the front of her dress blues. Every officer in the department when Officer Howard received that decorative reminder of the sacrifice he made for his community. Chief Thompson summoned all of her professional presence to firmly recall for the court the moment at Mario's Big M where she was the first to come to the aid of her dear friend and partner. She needed the judge to know that the man who pulled the trigger did not act in a childish or impulsive way on that sunny day before Halloween.
Judge Hurd ordered "Bam Bam" Lawrence to his feet. Lawrence then turned toward that front row and to the room full of officers. He apologized. He looked directly at the front row filled with the family of Officer Howard and said he was sorry. It was the first time he apologized in 23 years. He looked at Wallie Howard III and explained how he was no longer that same teenager who uplled the trigger. Delores Howard turned away. She waved her hand to communicate she was not buying what Lawrence was selling. The stone faced officers throughout the chamber reflected a similar tone. They have seen apologies before by men who have robbed, killed and raped. The officers were not there for apologies.
Even the judge wrote off what Lawrence had to say. A past history of lies had scraped away any credibility he hoped to have on this day. Judge Hurd showed no sign of compassion toward this killer of an officer. But, Judge Hurd did show a sign of respect for the law as handed down from the United States Supreme Court that now says he must consider those mitigating factors when deciding the appropriate sentence for a man who was then a teen when she committed this terrible act.
The judge pronounced a sentence that will be served at the same time as Lawrence's term in New York State prison. That means six years from now when he is eligible parole he could be freed. He will no longer have a federal prison term extending beyond his time in New York corrections.
Considering the sentence, before Lawrence was escorted from the courtroom courtroom staff cleared the RESERVED front row. They spared Mrs. Howard, her daughter and grandson from another moment where they were just a step away from the man who fired that .357 into Syracuse Police Officer Wallie Howard Jr. Badge 415, RIP. End of Watch October 30, 1990.
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