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Man who killed Syracuse police officer in 1990 has sentence reduced

By Joleen Ferris

(WKTV) - Old wounds tore open in a federal courtroom in Utica on Tuesday as a convicted cop killer, sentenced to life in prison without parole in the early 1990s for the murder of Syracuse Police Officer Wallie Howard Jr., got a second chance at freedom, because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The 2012 ruling found it unconstitutional to sentence a minor -- anyone under the age of 18 at the time of an offense -- to mandatory life in prison without parole.  Robert Lawrence was 16 in 1990 when he used a .357 magnum revolver to fatally shoot Howard in the back of the head during an undercover drug deal gone bad.

In federal court in Utica on Tuesday, Lawrence's attorney argued that at 16, he made much different decisions than he would today, at age 40. She also pointed out that, as a child of the streets, Lawrence didn't stand a chance. That his mother left him at a newsstand in Brooklyn at age 3 to be cared for by a 15-year-old, and that he was subsequently raised by drug dealers. Attorney Lisa Peebles said that Lawrence is a much different person today.

"When you speak to him, he's articulate. He understands what he did. He regrets it. He's remorseful -- and frankly, he doesn't make excuses."

Assistant U.S. attorneys argued that Lawrence's age doesn't change the grave circumstances of the crime.

"There's probably a lot of inmates in jail who now, if they had the opportunity to get out, would claim that they're changed persons, if they think that's going to help them get out. We don't think it changed the facts and circumstances of this crime," said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Duncan.

More than 100 police officers from Utica, Syracuse, New York State Police, New Hartford and the Oneida County Sheriff's Department filled Judge Hurd's federal courtroom in Utica for Lawrence's resentencing.  The family of murdered New Hartford Police Officer Joseph Corr was in court for the proceeding as well. Among the Syracuse officers in attendance, Syracuse Deputy Police Chief Rebecca Thompson, who was Officer Howard's partner in 1990. She found his body, slumped over, and shouted, "Officer down!" into the police radio.

"To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I'm disheartened," said Thompson.

Judge Hurd said that Lawrence's is exactly the type of case the U.S. Supreme Court had in mind when they ruled in 2012.  Hurd resentenced Lawrence to 377 months in prison, making him eligible to apply for parole in six years.

"In 2020, they will consider whether or not Robert Lawrence will be eligible for parole. I was hoping that was a hearing I'd never have to attend. But now I'll be there. Wherever I am in 2020, I will be there," said Thompson.

Officials with the U.S Attorney's Office are deciding whether or not to appeal. They say this is one of only 15 cases in the country affected by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 ruling. 

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