Former Eatonton Police Chief Kent Lawrence entered a plea of “not guilty” to battery charges in Putnam County State Court Wednesday morning, Sept. 29. Lawrence had waived formal arraignment and therefore was not present but entered the plea via his attorney, Morris H. “Mo” Wiltshire Jr., of Watkinsville.
Lawrence was arrested by GBI Special Agents on Dec. 11 on charges of two counts of simple battery and one count of battery. He is accused of using excessive force against then-58-year-old Eatonton resident Tina Childress while she was in custody at Eatonton Police Department on DUI charges. Lawrence was removed from his duties and placed on administrative leave with pay immediately after his arrest. Lawrence retired on Aug. 6 after having been the city’s police chief for 35 years.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first time Lawrence’s case was brought before a judge. Putnam County State Court Judge R. Michael Gailey and Solicitor Russell Thomas both had previously recused themselves from the case because of their long-time working relationship with Lawrence. The state attorney general appointed Washington County State Court Judge John A. Dana and Washington County Solicitor Michael S. Howard to the case.
Dana asked if the accusation had been filed and was told it was filed on Sept. 21. An in-camera inspection motion was filed, so the judge and two attorneys went to a back room of the courtroom to privately watch the body camera video of the excessive force incident. They left the courtroom for the day about an hour and 10 minutes later without any other public comment.
In the hallway afterwards, Wiltshire said they did an in-camera inspection because things on the video would have to be redacted, primarily some scenes of indecency.
Howard said the judge wanted motions to be filed, “and he basically didn’t give us any deadline to have those filed. So, briefs will be submitted to the court instead of oral arguments, unless the judge says differently,” he added.
According to Wiltshire, the defense is concerned with whether or not Lawrence had qualified immunity.
“He was acting in capacity as a police officer at the time, so it is our belief that he did have qualified immunity,” Wiltshire said.
Wiltshire explained that qualified immunity means Lawrence, and any police officer, has the right to use a certain amount of force when necessary to make an arrest.
No other hearing or court date has been set in the case, according to Howard.