Schenectady County

Schenectady cop found not guilty

With the criminal case against him ended in his favor, Darren Lawrence walked out of a Colonie court

With the criminal case against him ended in his favor, Darren Lawrence walked out of a Colonie courtroom Wednesday and noted how long it took the case to get to that point.

“Four years,” Lawrence said after his acquittal on a lesser count of harassment. A more serious count was dismissed before it ever got to the jury. “I’m just glad it’s over.”

Lawrence also reiterated that he “absolutely” wants to serve as a police officer again.

That issue, however, is not over.

The city is still trying to fire him, a city police official said Wednesday.

“It’s a different standard of proof,” Police Chief Mark Chaires said late Wednesday afternoon. “Evidence can be admissible at the administrative hearing that wasn’t heard at the criminal trial.”

The termination proceedings are to continue, and possibly conclude Nov. 3, officials said. Lawrence is the last of several officers marked for termination on various accusations. He hasn’t worked, however, for some time.

Lawrence stood trial in Colonie Town Court over three days this week, facing one misdemeanor count of leaving the scene of a personal injury accident and one violation-level count of harassment.

Lawrence was accused of being the driver early on Oct. 14, 2006, on the Northway in Colonie when the car carrying him and friend Mark Viscusi left the roadway and rolled into a median.

The driver of the car was required to report the accident. Passengers are not criminally required to make such notifications.

Lawrence also faced a violation count of harassment. He allegedly attacked Viscusi after the accident.

Viscusi initially told police Lawrence was the driver. But, under oath this week and four years after the accident, Viscusi conceded under questioning by Lawrence’s defense that he didn’t know who was the driver. He could have been the driver himself.

Lawrence’s attorney Michael McDermott said later that was where the prosecution’s case “imploded.”

“There was reasonable doubt injected into the case right there,” McDermott said.

The main charge against Lawrence, leaving the scene, was dismissed outright by Justice Norman Massry Wednesday morning for lack of evidence to sustain it.

The only charge the jury ultimately considered was the lesser harassment count, a count that carries with it a maximum of just 15 days in jail upon conviction and isn’t technically a crime.

It took the jury 90 minutes, through lunch, to acquit Lawrence on that count.

Prosecutors alleged Lawrence was driving after a night of drinking with Viscusi. They also alleged that Lawrence attacked Viscusi because Lawrence feared losing his job over the accident.

The defense claimed Viscusi was driving and that Lawrence was merely a passenger. They also alleged that Viscusi was the one who started the fight because Viscusi feared losing his license. The defense also didn’t dispute that Viscusi was drinking.

In the end, Lawrence simply went home without any contact with police about the rollover accident he had just been in.

Even given that scenario, however, a Schenectady official said it would still be grounds for termination. Assistant Corporation Counsel Kate McGuirl said that scenario would still make Lawrence “clearly unfit” to be a police officer.

McDermott said the outcome of the case exonerated Lawrence and he hoped it would go “a long way toward getting him back on the streets.”

After the verdicts, McDermott said his client’s reaction that night was the prudent reaction of someone being falsely accused of a crime.

“He was not fleeing from the police, he was trying to get away from Mr. Viscusi, who was assaulting him,” McDermott said.

As far as going to the police about the accident, McDermott noted Lawrence’s relationship with Viscusi. Lawrence’s girlfriend at the time was Dena Viscusi, Mark Viscusi’s sister.

“You’ve got to appreciate the dynamics here, too,” McDermott said. “This was his longtime girlfriend’s brother. So I think there would have been some conflicting emotions there about calling the police on him, figuring that [Mark Viscusi], as the driver, would have the responsibility to contact police.”

By the time Lawrence got home, McDermott said, he was already aware that Viscusi was making false accusations against him. He retained an attorney and followed his attorney’s advice.

“Any prudent person under the circumstances would seek the advice of counsel,” McDermott said.

Viscusi and Lawrence ended up some distance away from the accident scene and got into the altercation. It was 4 a.m. and pitch dark. McDermott said he didn’t think anyone would stand on a freeway to try and flag somebody down.

“Again, in a perfect world, people make perfect decisions all the time,” McDermott said. “In an imperfect world, people don’t make perfect decisions all the time.”

Despite the outcome of this week’s trial, city officials still believe it was Lawrence driving that night.

“The city absolutely believes Darren was driving,” McGuirl said. “The city believes he left the scene of a personal injury accident.”

Among potential evidence not allowed at the trial was the position of the driver’s seat. An investigator was prepared to testify it was set at a position for a taller person, like Lawrence, not for a shorter person like Viscusi.

However, sometime in the four years since, the seat position was moved before the defense could examine it for themselves, barring its use at the trial. It was unclear if the alleged position of the seat was being used at the termination proceedings.

The passage of four years of time was cited by the Albany County District Attorney’s Office as contributing to the ultimately weak case.

The jury, they said, deserved to hear the case sooner than the four years it took to have it scheduled for trial. As to why it took four years, they directed questions to Colonie Town Court.

A spokeswoman also ruled out any possible charges against Viscusi as the alleged driver, saying no one recalled who was driving the car.

Also still ongoing is a lawsuit against Lawrence brought by Viscusi, alleging assault and battery. Viscusi is seeking $200,000 in damages.

Viscusi’s attorney in that proceeding, Kevin Luibrand, said the accident portion of the claim has already been settled. He declined to say for how much.

But, he said, “the settlement reflects that the driver was not Mark Viscusi.”

Luibrand declined to say whether it reflected the driver was Lawrence.

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