The US state of Georgia broke a record today for the number of executions in a single year, despite a cop killer's eleventh hour excuse.

Gregory Paul Lawler was executed at 11.49pm local time at the state prison in Jackson over a 1997 murder his lawyers said was exusable because of his autism.

By administering lethal injection to the 63-year-old, Georgia executed its seventh person in 2016, the most executions in a single year. Six people, including murderer Kelly Gissendaner, had already received the needle this year, matching the highest number since the death penalty was introduced in 1987.

But Lawler, who shot and killed police officer John Sowa 19 years ago, had one last hope. His lawyers argued he should get a second chance because last month he was diagnosed with autism.


His life was in the hands of the US Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against him.


Police Officer John Sowa was shot and killed as he and another officer responded to a domestic violence call. Photo / Supplied
Police Officer John Sowa was shot and killed as he and another officer responded to a domestic violence call. Photo / Supplied

On October 12, 1997, Atlanta police officers Sowa and Patricia Cocciolone responded to reports of a domestic situation unfolding.

Police were told a man was hitting a woman in the car park outside a bar. When they arrived, Lawler was trying to pull his drunken girlfriend to her feet.

He fled the scene to a nearby townhouse he owned and officers drove his girlfriend home. When they arrived, knocking on the door, Lawler told them to leave. He swore at the officers but allowed them to escort his girlfriend inside.

Lawler's girlfriend entered but police did not. Lawler tried to keep them from entering and tensions quickly escalated.

Police told Lawler they only wanted to make sure his girlfriend was safe, but Lawler responded by grabbing a weapon - an AR-15 rifle and ammunition including bullets that can pierce body armour.

Police ran from the scene as shots rang out. Cocciolone was wounded but got away. Sowa did not. When backup arrived, they found both officers on the ground in the shooter's yard. Their guns were still holstered.

After a six-hour standoff, Lawler surrendered to police. He was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. But his lawyers launched an eleventh hour plea.


Lawler's attorneys argued that a diagnosis last month of autism spectrum disorder helps explain why their client acted as he did in the encounter with the officers.

That disorder, which wasn't diagnosed at the time, caused Lawler to misinterpret the officers' intentions and led him to believe he was in danger and needed to fight for his life.

The disorder also caused him to behave in a way that may seem inappropriate when he testified at his trial and again when he was interviewed recently by investigators for the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, his lawyers wrote in a clemency application.

Because of his autism, they wrote, he "has often been mistakenly perceived as cold, callous, or remorseless".

The Georgia Supreme Court said in a statement on Wednesday it had unanimously denied defence requests to halt execution plans originally set for 7pm. Defence attorneys later appealed to the US Supreme Court, but there was no immediate decision from the justices hours later. Shortly after midnight, a statement was released declaring Lawler dead.

On Wednesday, Lawler had visits from one family member, a lawyer and a paralegal, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said. He also ate a meal he requested that included steak, baked potato with sour cream and ice cream.

- With AP