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March 24, 2006 - Berkshire Eagle (MA)

Man Guilty In School Drug Case Receives Mandatory Two Years

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PITTSFIELD -- An 18-year-old Otis man received two years behind bars yesterday after a jury found him guilty of selling 1.12 grams of marijuana near a Great Barrington preschool during a controversial drug probe in 2004.

A panel of six men and six women deliberated at Berkshire Superior Court for more than an hour before finding Mitchell Lawrence guilty of single counts of distribution of marijuana, committing a drug violation within a drug-free school zone, and possession of marijuana.

Lawrence, dressed in a gray suit, remained silent and stoic as the court clerk read the verdict. His parents wept and held each other's hands as they sat in the front pew.

Judge John A. Agostini ordered Lawrence to serve two years at the Berkshire House of Correction on the school-zone violation -- the minimum mandatory sentence for that charge -- and one day on the distribution charge. Lawrence also received a concurrent 10-day sentence on the possession charge.

Agostini had denied defense attorney Richard A. Simons' request to postpone sentencing, but the judge also expressed sympathy over the case. Agostini explained that he was required to sentence Lawrence for two years according to the school-zone statute.

Lawrence's parents declined to comment yesterday, but Simons said he was "gravely disappointed" by the jury's verdict.

"The dogged prosecution of the school-zone charge in this case illustrates the danger and unfairness of mandatory sentencing," Simons said. "The result is that Mitchell Lawrence received a sentence that is so disproportional to other first offenders who have committed more serious crimes than he. Justice was not carried out today, and that makes me very sad."

Simons also indicated that he will further argue before Agostini next week to delay his client's sentencing while he appeals to a higher court for a change in the interpretation of the school-zone law.

"I feel there are legitimate appellate issues, and I'll be reviewing all of those issues with Mitchell Lawrence imminently," Simons added.

Lawrence was among 19 people arrested on drug-dealing charges as a result of an undercover operation from January to September 2004 at the former Taconic Lumber parking lot in Great Barrington.

The parking lot, located within 1,000 feet of the Great Barrington Co-operative Preschool and Searles/ Bryant Middle School, was a popular hangout for young adults and reportedly rife with drug activity at the time.

Most of those arrested were accused of selling cocaine, ecstasy and other "hard" drugs, but seven of the defendants -- including Lawrence -- were charged with selling small amounts of marijuana.

Parents and South County residents formed the Concerned Citizens for Appropriate Justice after the arrests, and they attempted to persuade District Attorney David F. Capeless to drop the school-zone charges against those seven defendants.

"Each individual case should be assessed, and the charges should be appropriate to the individual," said Judith C. Knight, a defense attorney who represented Kyle Sawin, a defendant who was freed from his charges by a jury last September.

"To charge Mitchell Lawrence with the school-zone violation is not what the law was intended for. It's just not right to make a point at the expense of a young man's freedom and future."

Yesterday, Capeless, in a phone interview from the state of Florida, spoke to the "fabrications" circulating about Lawrence's case. Capeless pointed out that people have mistakenly believed that the Otis youth was being prosecuted for selling a marijuana cigarette, when it was actually 1.12 grams of the drug that was pre-packaged for distribution.

"People have been putting out misinformation and fabrications, and they don't deserve any further comment from me," Capeless added. "They do not have respect for justice or the truth."

Two-Day Trial

During closing arguments yesterday, Assistant District Attorney Robert W. Kinzer III implored the jury to focus on the facts presented in the two-day trial. Kinzer also asked jurors to disregard Simons' plea for leniency for his client and comments about the unfairness of the school-zone law.

"You don't get to come in here and decide what laws are fair or unfair," Kinzer told jurors. "The law's the law. ... This is about accountability, holding people accountable for their actions. I'm asking you to hold Mitchell Lawrence accountable for his actions and return a guilty verdict."

Lawrence sold the marijuana to undercover Berkshire County Task Force officer Felix A. Aguirre for $20 on June 30, 2004. The sale took place between 426 and 556 feet of the preschool, which is inside the First Congregational Church.

Simons contended that Aguirre had pressured Lawrence into selling his stash, and that he led Lawrence out of the parking lot and closer to the preschool.

Kinzer countered that Aguirre hadn't known about the preschool's location, and actually led Lawrence in the opposite direction of the school. Kinzer also argued that Lawrence had propositioned Aguirre, offering to sell him a "20," street talk for $20 worth of marijuana.

Lawrence testified he thought Aguirre wanted to go smoke marijuana and followed him out of the parking lot for that reason. Lawrence also said he sold his marijuana because he was hungry and needed money for something to eat, and because Aguirre offered him twice the value for the marijuana.

They Said It

"The dogged prosecution of the school-zone charge in this case illustrates the danger and unfairness of mandatory sentencing." -- Defense attorney Richard A. Simons

"This policy has been in place for years, and it has been even-handed and fair." -- District Attorney David F. Capeless, defending the school-zone drug laws

"You don't get to come in here and decide what laws are fair or unfair." -- Assistant District Attorney Robert W. Kinzer III, in his closing argument to the jurors

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