Teen guilty in attack on off-duty officer Bryan Lawrence
In May 2008, William Steele Jr. assaulted Officer Bryan Lawrence, breaking his neck and leaving him permanently disabled.
By Mike Allen
Roanoke police Officer Bryan Lawrence lay on his back in the street, his neck and shoulders radiating agony. Over his police radio a dispatcher called his unit number. "What's your location?"
Just seconds before, Lawrence had a suspect pinned on the ground. He had his knee in the man's back and had grabbed the man's right arm with both his hands in order to put handcuffs on him.
Then he felt a sharp pain in his neck and fell backward. As his attacker and the suspect ran off, the dispatcher kept calling: "162, what's your location? 162, can you advise on location? Unit 162, can you advise on location?"
Lawrence could see his microphone, lying near his hand, but he couldn't answer, because he couldn't move his arm. Below his shoulders, he felt nothing.
Wednesday, after hearing testimony from Lawrence in Roanoke Circuit Court, Judge Clifford Weckstein found William Steele Jr. guilty of aggravated malicious wounding in the assault that broke the officer's neck, injured his spinal cord and left him permanently disabled.
In finding Steele guilty, Weckstein mentioned how the 18-year-old had kicked Lawrence in the face so hard that the shoe print still showed on the officer's forehead a day later.
At his sentencing, scheduled for March 23, the 18-year-old faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison.
Dantonio Terrell Foster Sr., the friend whom Steele helped escape by attacking Lawrence, has a sentencing scheduled for Wednesday for the incident that led to the assault. Prosecutors have said they will ask that Foster, 25, be ordered to serve up to 3 1/2 years in prison.
"Nobody won," Lawrence said after Steele's trial ended. He said that he would likely never be able to walk again, and that his wife, Brenda, is physically and mentally exhausted from the long hours she spends caring for him. As he spoke, his wife wept and interjected how it's hard for her husband to even stay well enough to continue his physical therapy. Lawrence said he's been repeatedly hospitalized since the attack.
As for Steele, he said, "We forgive him for what he's done, but still he has to pay the price for what the law has set for him."
Before the trial began, Lawrence waited outside in a wheelchair, but he came into the courtroom on his feet, moving slowly, leaning on a walker as his wife, son and a family friend helped him stay upright.
Steele responded "not guilty" when the clerk asked him for his plea. But as the judge finished asking him questions about his plea, Steele turned toward Lawrence and the uniformed police officers who filled the benches on the prosecution's side of the courtroom.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't intend to hurt that man."
Weckstein stopped him and cautioned that anything he said could be used against him during the trial.
Steele's attorney, Jimmy Turk, said that he did not dispute the prosecution's version of events. He said Steele admits that he kicked Lawrence in the head that night. Turk said he would argue that Steele was guilty of assaulting Lawrence, but that he had no malicious intent when he attacked.
"You are going to find him guilty of something," Turk told Weckstein. "I'm going to argue that he's guilty of unlawful wounding and not malicious wounding."
Lawrence testified about the attack and the events that led up to it. The night of May 10, as he was working off-duty in full uniform at Berglund Chevrolet on Williamson Road, he heard a call about an assault on a woman at the nearby Go Mart. He went looking for the suspect, a man in an orange-and-white striped shirt, and found Foster, who matched the description and was walking along Huntington Boulevard Northwest with Steele.
Foster let Lawrence see his identification. When word came back on Lawrence's police radio that Foster was the suspect, Foster ran. Lawrence radioed in "Foot pursuit!" and gave chase. Foster tripped and Lawrence caught up with him, pinning him to the ground and grabbing his arm to cuff him. That's when Steele attacked him.
Turk asked Lawrence whether Steele had made any threatening remarks to him before or after the assault. Lawrence said he had not.
According to testimony, Foster and Steele were both arrested soon after. Steele was pulled off a fence by a police dog as he tried to climb over it.
Steele took the stand in his own defense, saying that he had wanted to help Foster but that he never intended to do lasting harm to Lawrence. He said that when he kicked at Lawrence, he wasn't aiming for the officer's head, and he insisted the kick was more of a "push."
He again turned to face Lawrence and his family and repeatedly apologized. "I'm not trying to pull no bull over nobody's face," he said. "I'm sorry."
Turk argued that while Steele had unquestionably committed a crime, when he struck he had no intention to maim, disfigure, disable or kill. "What he really wanted to do was to free Mr. Foster," Turk said. The attorney emphasized that Steele struck only once, then ran.
But Assistant Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Braxton countered that Lawrence did nothing to provoke Steele and had no warning of the attack.
"It's a kick to the face with a shoe. It's a brutal attack," he said. "To escape, the defendant has to put Bryan Lawrence down to stay down."
Weckstein, in making his ruling, agreed with Braxton on every point, noting that under Virginia law, deliberately interfering with a lawful arrest is considered malice.