A jury found a Durango man not guilty this week of assaulting an officer in a case that was initially dismissed because officers “lacked reasonable suspicion” to arrest him, according to court records.
Durango resident Butch Lawrence contested second- and third-degree assault charges alleging that on May 18, 2018, he assaulted Durango Police Department officer Connor Lowande after avoiding contact with police. He hit Lowande in the back of his head, “which was making him nauseous,” according to arrest documents filed with the court May 21, 2018.
But Lawrence told The Durango Herald on Wednesday he mistook the officers as possible assailants, ran because he feared for his life and was never aggressive toward officers.
Assistant District Attorney David Ottman charged Lawrence with second-degree assault May 24, 2018, a Class 4 felony punishable by two to six years in prison.
Deputy District Attorney Robert Barlow filed a motion Sept. 5, 2018, asking District Court Judge Suzanne Carlson to dismiss the second-degree assault charge, citing inappropriate justification for the arrest that led to Lowande’s injury. Specifically, Barlow quoted a Colorado Supreme Court opinion that found, “An individual’s attempt to avoid coming in contact with a police officer does not, without more, justify an investigative detention of the individual,” according to the motion.
Carlson granted the request to dismiss the case Sept. 11, 2018. But Barlow on Sept. 12 filed a another second-degree assault charge with identical allegations to those dismissed just a day before. Barlow added a third-degree assault charge Jan. 15, a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by six to 18 months in jail.
A two-day trial before a 12-person jury ended Tuesday with 2½ hours of deliberation and not-guilty verdicts.
Tears streamed down Lawrence’s face after the verdict, and his family gathered around him in a group hug.
“Men aren’t supposed to cry or whatever – I cried, but I don’t feel bad about it, I normally don’t,” Lawrence said. “I was planning this whole time to not have a life and not to have one when I get out.”
Lawrence said he couldn’t sleep the night after the jury came to a verdict. For a year, he feared being sentenced to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He worried about how his case would affect his children, and the uncertainty made him re-evaluate what’s important to him.
District Attorney Christian Champagne said prosecutors dismissed the case but upon further review, “recognized that it was a righteous case” and refiled charges. There was a misunderstanding of “how the contact went down,” said Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer.
Officers involved in Lawrence’s arrest could not have known that he hadn’t committed a crime, and they had probable cause to detain him, Brammer said.
What happenedOfficers contacted Lawrence about 11:20 p.m. May 18, 2018, after reportedly seeing him in a parking lot in the 1200 block of Florida Road with a hooded sweatshirt peeking into car windows, according to arresting documents. Patrol officer Nathan Kearney noted in his affidavit that Lawrence was in a high-crime area that included “criminal acts involving vehicles” in the parking lot.
Lawrence said he’d been at the apartment complex to talk with an ex-girlfriend and to retrieve his cowboy hat.
Kearney got out of his patrol vehicle and watched a man he later identified as Lawrence enter an apartment building and reappear with a cowboy hat. Kearney reported seeing grass and dirt on the man’s sweatshirt before he left the parking lot, according to arresting documents.
“(Lawrence) appeared very nervous when he walked past my empty patrol vehicle,” Kearney wrote.
Kearney got in his patrol vehicle, stopped on Florida Road where Lawrence was walking westbound and tried to make contact, according to arresting documents. The officer asked Lawrence to stop, but he kept walking, Kearney wrote.
He tried a second time to get Lawrence to stop and explain his “suspicious behavior,” Kearney wrote. Again, Lawrence didn’t stop, muttering something about not wanting to talk with the officer while continuing a conversation on a telephone, Kearney wrote.
Lawrence said he’d been on the phone with his ex-girlfriend, and he didn’t hear Kearney identify himself as an officer. Lawrence said he hadn’t done anything wrong and, although his gut told him Kearney might have been an officer, he felt no reason to stop.
Kearney tried a third time to stop Lawrence, claiming he “had reasonable suspicion to require him to talk with me about his actions,” he wrote. Lawrence ran and hid in a bush for three to five minutes and ran when officers found him, according to police.
Kearney grabbed Lawrence’s hood and, with the help of officer Lowande, took him to the ground.
“Lawrence continued to struggle and resist and began swinging his arms,” Kearney wrote. It’s during this altercation that law enforcement allege Lawrence hit Lowande. Lawrence said Wednesday officers beat him with flashlights, batons and knees.
Officers tried to arrest Lawrence near a steep ledge near the 1200 block of Florida Road, and at one point, began to fall, according to police. Lawrence said he’d freed himself from police and had contemplated jumping the 12 feet to what he saw as safety.
An officer hit Lawrence with a baton to “gain compliance,” Kearney wrote, then grabbed him by the hair and pulled him off the ledge. Lawrence escaped again and was apprehended by a La Plata County Sheriff’s deputy.
“Officer Lowande could not walk down the hill on his own after being hit in the head and had to be assisted by another officer,” Kearney wrote.
Chief Brammer said he stands behind the decisions and actions of the officers. Officers had probable cause to detain Lawrence and the District Attorney’s Office did its due diligence, Brammer said.
“If a jury of his peers found him innocent, and the DA was not able to prove that he was guilty, then our system worked,” he said.
Lawrence said he “took a hell of a financial hit” defending himself in court, but he’s a better person for what happened. He hadn’t planned on a not-guilty verdict, so he’s unsure what to do next, Lawrence said.
“I basically committed suicide thinking that somebody was going to kill me,” Lawrence said of his actions at the time of his arrest. “Now, I have to figure out how to live, even if I can stay in this town.”