Before killing girlfriend, man violated probation

He was never arrested despite court hearings

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Kerrese Lawrence was a convicted felon who was on probation in Allegheny County last week when police say he killed his pregnant girlfriend.

A review of Lawrence's criminal history by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows that he may have violated his probation in February when he was arrested on felony charges, an occurrence that in most cases would have landed him in jail.

But despite at least seven interactions Lawrence had with the criminal justice system between his February arrest in connection with a stolen car and April 30, the day Lauren Williams was killed, he never returned to jail on a probation violation, even though he was arrested once and charged another time via summons, failed to appear for a court hearing and had a warrant issued for his arrest.

In fact, one judge who held a hearing for Lawrence said he was unaware that probation officers had started the violation hearing process and blamed it on the way information is shared among the Allegheny County courts and the county's Adult Probation Office.

Lawrence, 20, killed himself May 2 as Pittsburgh police prepared to arrest him in connection with the April 30 shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend.

Ultimately, the decision on whether to obtain a warrant for a potential probation violator or request that the person be held at the jail is "the responsibility of the probation department," said Tom McCaffrey, Allegheny County criminal court administrator. What Lawrence's probation officer, Nathan Watkins, did after Lawrence was arrested in February is unclear. Mr. Watkins declined to comment and his supervisors refused to talk about the case.

What is clear is that Lawrence was a felon who was on probation and was subsequently arrested but somehow avoided going back to jail.

Frank Scherer, deputy director of the Allegheny County Adult Probation Office, said he could not comment about Lawrence's case, but he said that in general, a new criminal charge filed against someone who is on probation could result in that person being sent to jail.

"In most cases, we likely would detain on a new felony or a violent offense, but there is always discretion," Mr. Scherer said.

There are rules people must follow after they are placed on probation.

"Generally speaking, you have to report, can't be arrested for a new crime, can't leave the jurisdiction without permission," Mr. McCaffrey said.

When someone who is on probation is arrested and processed at the Allegheny County Jail, fingerprints are taken, triggering an automatic email alert to a probation officer, officials said. The probation officer could ask a judge to place a detainer on the person, and that would keep him in jail until a hearing in front of a common pleas court judge.

A probation officer who believes someone already freed from jail should be in custody because of a potential violation can seek a warrant.

Mr. McCaffrey said officials had scheduled two preliminary violation hearings with probation officers for Lawrence after his February arrest, including one he did not attend. Those hearings do not appear in records kept at Allegheny County Common Pleas Court or Magisterial District Courts, which function on separate computer systems.

That arrangement sometimes leaves judges wishing they had more information. The judges say they cannot always immediately access information about what is happening in the other system. Although Lawrence had a history of being arrested, he did not appear to turn violent until last week.

In the months before the fatal shooting April 30, Lawrence had several interactions with the criminal justice system, as far back as Jan. 16, when he pleaded guilty to drug possession and criminal use of a cell phone. He was sentenced that day to two years of probation.

A sentencing form in his case file listed no special conditions of probation, meaning he would be bound by the general rules, Mr. McCaffrey said.

Eleven days later, detectives with the Allegheny County District Attorney's office filed two felony charges and several misdemeanors against Lawrence, saying he drove a car suspected to be stolen. He was arrested Feb. 11 and arrived at the Allegheny County Jail at 1:37 a.m. that day.

While he was being processed at the jail, he underwent a routine interview with someone at pre-trial services.

"At the time of arraignment, they let the magistrate know that he was on probation and they recommended a high bond," said Mike Manko, spokesman for the district attorney's office.

At Lawrence's arraignment, District Judge Ron Costa Sr. ordered him to appear in court for a preliminary hearing later that month before District Judge James Hanley. Judge Costa set Lawrence's bail at $10,000 straight. Lawrence posted it with the help of a bondsman and was released at 9:45 p.m. Feb. 12.

Judge Hanley said Lawrence appeared at his first court date without an attorney, so he granted a postponement.

On April 2, Lawrence appeared in Common Pleas Court and signed a notice acknowledging that he needed to appear later that month for a pre-trial conference on a different case involving gun and drug charges.

The next day, April 3, Pittsburgh police stopped Lawrence after they smelled an odor of marijuana coming from a car and charged him via summons with a misdemeanor drug charge.

Because he was not taken to jail, his fingerprints were not taken, and no automatic alert to his probation officer was triggered.

On April 10, Lawrence was scheduled to appear before Judge Hanley on the case involving the stolen car. But he didn't show up.

Twelve days after the missed hearing, Judge Hanley on April 22 issued a warrant for Lawrence for failure to appear in court. Judge Hanley notified his constable, and the warrant was uploaded into a state court system, according to his office.

On April 25, Lawrence appeared in Common Pleas Court for a pre-trial conference involving the gun and drug case. He signed a note acknowledging a June trial date.

When someone appears in Common Pleas Court for a scheduled hearing, sheriff's deputies check a list to see whether there are outstanding warrants for that person. But Sheriff's Cmdr. Donna Best said Lawrence's name did not appear on the April 25 list of people with outstanding warrants compiled by the court.

On April 29, Lawrence appeared before Judge Hanley, who asked why he missed his court date. The judge recalled Lawrence saying, "I have other things going on. I got mixed up."

Unbeknownst to Judge Hanley -- or anyone else in law enforcement at the time -- earlier in the day Lawrence had threatened to kill his girlfriend, himself and the couple's unborn child, police said.

Judge Hanley noticed that Lawrence seemed "pretty mild-mannered" and interested in rectifying his case. The judge canceled the bench warrant he had issued and set a new hearing date for May 15. The judge said he was unaware Lawrence had been scheduled for probation violation hearings, one of which he did not attend.

"It would have been nice to know," the judge said. Judge Hanley said he might have considered the probation violation hearings when deciding whether to cancel the warrant.

Shortly after he left the court building, Lawrence called Ms. Williams and threatened to kill them both, police said. Penn Hills police obtained a warrant for Lawrence that night stemming from the threats to his girlfriend.

The next day, Lawrence shot Ms. Williams in the face after confronting her on Kincaid Street in Garfield, said Pittsburgh police, who then obtained an arrest warrant for him.

It was not until then, after he was charged with homicide, that Lawrence's probation officer obtained a bench warrant for a probation violation.

Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Jonathan D. Silver contributed.



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