Teen to serve 15 years in attack on officer
William Steele Jr. said he regrets injuring Bryan Lawrence. The officer's son wished Steele a better life.
By Mike Allen
Officer Bryan Lawrence had a probation officer read aloud a poem during the sentencing for the 19-year-old who broke his neck and left him partially paralyzed.
The poem addressed "the pain that I endure each day, the shame I'm caused to bear." Then it described the tortures Jesus endured before dying on the cross: "If he forgives me, all I've done, then I must do the same."
Lawrence did not testify during Monday's hearing. Instead, he let the poem serve as his words to the judge and to William Steele Jr., the man convicted of paralyzing him.
Sentencing guidelines in Steele's case recommended that he spend about 10 years in prison for the aggravated malicious wounding that broke Lawrence's neck. Roanoke prosecutor Bill Braxton argued that punishment wasn't harsh enough, calling instead for 25 years of active time.
Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Clifford Weckstein did neither. He gave Steele a life sentence, suspended after 15 years in a penitentiary. When Steele is released after his active sentence is done, he'll be on probation essentially for the rest of his life, with the remainder of the life sentence hanging over him.
Lawrence, 46, arrived at the courthouse in a wheelchair, accompanied by his wife, son and daughter-in-law. He used a walker to make his way slowly into the courtroom as his wife helped hold him up.
He expects to continue with physical therapy, though whether he will ever be able to walk unaided or regain full use of his arms remains an open question.
Outside the courtroom, he said he was satisfied with Steele's punishment. "That poem that was written was sincere about how we feel," he said. "Fifteen years is going to be hard for a young man."
On the night of May 10, as Lawrence worked 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 helped search for the suspect and found Dantonio Foster Sr. walking along Huntington Boulevard Northwest, accompanied by Steele.
Foster ran from Lawrence, who gave chase. Foster tripped and the officer caught up with him, pinning him to the ground and grabbing his arm to cuff him. That's when Steele kicked Lawrence in the forehead, breaking his neck, injuring his spinal cord and leaving him disabled.
Steele's foster mother, Sonya Thomas, has said that she had never heard of Foster before the attack on Lawrence. She said Steele "just met him in the streets."
Foster ultimately was sentenced to one year and 10 months for the assault that started the incident.
At Steele's hearing Monday in Roanoke Circuit Court, he apologized profusely to Lawrence and his family, just as he did at his Feb. 4 trial.
"I never meant for you to go through the needless pain that I caused," he said. "It takes a lot for you to forgive me. ... I just want to say thank you for accepting my apology."
As Weckstein prepared to punish Steele, he said he did not doubt that Steele's apology was sincere, nor did he doubt that the crime was malicious. "It didn't particularly enter in your head, Mr. Steele, that the person in the blue uniform was a human, was a person."
Weckstein added, though, that in crafting the sentence he also had to consider "how not to make a 19-year-old become simply a prison-hardened criminal."
Once the hearing ended, as Brenda Lawrence helped her husband struggle to his feet, defense attorney Jimmy Turk walked over to speak to them. He told them that he wished them good luck.
As he started to walk way, Robert Lawrence, the officer's son, called to Turk and asked him to come back. When Turk did, Lawrence's son had a message for the attorney to pass along to his client: "Tell him we wish him a better life."