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Serial drunk driver asks St. John's judge to spare him jail, saying it could endanger his life

Dennis Lawlor, 46, arrives with his lawyer, Ken Mahoney, for his sentencing hearing Wednesday in provincial court in St. John's. Tara Bradbury/The Telegram
Dennis Lawlor, 46, arrives with his lawyer, Ken Mahoney, for his sentencing hearing Wednesday in provincial court in St. John's. Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

'You're going to kill someone'

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

A Paradise man with eight impaired driving convictions says he has finally taken steps to change his life, and is asking a provincial court judge to spare him jail time on the grounds that it could endanger his health.

Dennis Lawlor, 46, pleaded guilty Wednesday in St. John’s to his two most recent drunk driving instances, and told Judge James Walsh he hasn’t touched alcohol since he was arrested for those offences in 2017. Up to that point, he said, he had been drinking between two and four flasks of alcohol a day.

“I said, ‘Dennis. enough is enough, you’re going to kill someone,’” Lawlor told the judge. “It’s a wonder that I never, but I didn’t, only for the love of God or pure dumb luck. And I got no issues or the qualms with the law or the police that arrested me, that’s their job and I’m glad that they did it, because I don’t know what would have happened.”

Lawlor’s convictions this week were related to incidents three and four years ago. On Oct. 23, 2016, police officers responding to a complaint of a possible impaired driver on Paradise Road located Lawlor driving his pickup erratically. He refused to pull over and sped away on wet roads, then pulled into a residential driveway. When he got out of the vehicle, police noticed he smelled of alcohol and told him he was under arrest. More than an hour later he blew a breathalyzer reading that was more than double the legal blood alcohol limit.

On April 1, 2017, police located Lawlor’s truck on Prince Philip Drive in St. John’s while investigating a number of hit-and-run accidents in the area. The truck narrowly avoided hitting the median twice before it stopped for the officers. Lawlor, who had been driving, got out of the vehicle and was having trouble breathing, so police called an ambulance. He staggered as he walked and told paramedics he had been drinking vodka, but not much. Police located a flask of vodka in the centre console of the truck, and a blood sample taken from Lawlor after he was taken to the ER measured his blood alcohol level at three times the legal limit. He was released from hospital about an hour after he arrived.

Lawlor told the court that an accident in 2012 – in which he overturned a dump truck while driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit and was stuck inside the truck for hours while emergency responders attempted to free him – served to worsen his alcoholism. He suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung in the crash, he said, and as a result turned more to the bottle. He said he has been participating in counselling at least twice a week since his arrest in 2017, and has given up drinking for good.

On Wednesday he asked Walsh not to send him to jail, saying he has health conditions that could put him in danger due to conditions at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP).

Lawlor suffers from obesity hypoventilation syndrome, a condition in which people deemed severely overweight cannot breathe quickly or deeply enough, resulting in not enough oxygen and too much carbon dioxide.

He told the court he must use a bi-PAP machine with a face mask at night when sleeping, along with air purifiers, all which must be kept meticulously clean.

He also takes multiple medications and carries an Epi-Pen for a severe nut allergy, he said, showing the latter to the judge.

Lawlor, through his lawyer, Ken Mahoney, intends to file an application arguing that the mandatory minimum jail sentence for his crimes amounts to cruel and unusual punishment because of his health conditions.

Crown prosecutor Mike Murray indicated he has provided HMP staff with information from Lawlor’s doctors regarding his medical needs, and they believe, so far, that they can accommodate them.

The judge asked Lawlor why he got behind the wheel of a vehicle when he was drinking.

“I’m having a hard time understanding it,” Walsh said. “The alcohol didn’t force you to get behind the wheel. It didn’t force you to take off. It didn’t force you not to stop for the police.”

“Well, Your Honour, when you’re alcoholic and you drink, you don’t care about much,” Lawlor replied. “Anybody in this world, I don’t care who they are, when they drink, at a certain point they’re not the same person. And for me, I could get behind the wheel and drive. And I shouldn’t have done that.”

Lawlor grew emotional as he told the judge he would “rather be put under the ground” than turn back to alcohol.

“Dennis Lawlor will never see alcohol between his lips ever again. I can promise you that,” he said.

Lawlor’s case will be called again March 12, when the defence plans to call his respirologist to testify.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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