Sawkill Road murder suspects may get separate trials

Maurice Stansberry Sr. enters court before hearing last December.

Kevin Gardener (rear) and Maurice Stansberry Jr. leave court after a hearing last December.

Three men accused in the December 2018 murder of a man during an alleged marijuana robbery may get separate trials after prosecutors said in court this week they planned to use texts between two of the codefendants to make their case.

Maurice Stansberry Sr., his son Maurice Stansberry Jr. and Kevin Gardener all face murder and robbery charges stemming from the Dec. 1, 2018 shooting death of 38-year-old Mark Lancaster on Sawkill Road.

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All three men are slated to go on trial, together, on July 22. All three are charged under New York State’s “felony murder” law. Under the statute, when a person is killed during the commission of a crime, all participants in the crime can be held liable for the murder — whether or not they actually caused the victim’s death. In order to prove a felony murder case, prosecutors must show that all of the defendants showed a “community of purpose” and acted in concert to carry out the underlying crime. In this case, Senior Assistant District Attorney Emmanuel Nneji will need to prove that the Stansberrys and Gardener were all willing participants in the marijuana robbery that preceded Lancaster’s death.

Prosecutors believe that Stansberry, 39, his son and Gardener, both 18, went to the Sawkill Trailer Park around noon on Dec. 1, 2018 to meet with Lancaster and two others. During the meeting, cops believe, one of the defendants produced a handgun and relieved Lancaster and his companions of about two ounces of marijuana. The trio then fled the scene in a vehicle. Police believe Lancaster and his friends went looking for the robbers and found them near 341 Sawkill Road. In the ensuing confrontation, Lancaster was shot in the torso. He succumbed to his injuries at HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley’s Broadway Campus a short time later. All three suspects were taken into custody within 24 hours of the shooting; Stansberry Sr. and Gardener remain in the Ulster County Jail while Stansberry Jr. is free on $200,000 bail.

The prospect of a joint trial for the three defendants was thrown into doubt during a series of pre-trial hearings before Ulster County Court Judge Don Williams on Monday, July 2. The hearings were held to determine what evidence would be shown to jurors and to hash out other legal issues in advance of the trial. In order to try the defendants together, prosecutors would have to walk a fine line to avoid setting up an irreconcilable conflict between the accuseds’ constitutional rights. Under the Constitution, every criminal defendant has the right to cross-examine their accuser, but defendants in a criminal trial may not be compelled to take the witness stand. In order to avoid this conflict, prosecutors would have to avoid using any statements from the men that might implicate their co-defendants in the crime.

Initially, Nneji told Williams that he planned to prosecute the case without using any statements or other evidence that could put the co-defendants on a legal collision course with one another. During a break in the proceedings, Nneji told reporters that separate trials would be an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, the court system and witnesses.

“It is a matter of making sure that the right thing is done and done efficiently,” said Nneji of the joint trial strategy.

But a short time later, Nneji told Williams that after reviewing the case with co-counsel, he had decided to use evidence that could require Stansberry Sr. to be tried separately. Specifically, Nneji said, he planned to use text messages between Gardener and Stansberry Sr. in which the pair discuss marijuana robberies and in which Gardener allegedly asks the older man if he can borrow his gun. In response, Stansberry Sr.’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Russell Schindler, said that he would seek a separate trial for his client. Schindler told Williams that it would likely take him a week to prepare a motion for severance.

The pretrial hearing, which Stansberry Jr. and his attorney did not attend, also addressed evidence of “Prior bad acts” that might be introduced at trial. Nneji told Williams that he had a witness who would testify that a few months prior to the shooting, Gardener and the Stansberrys had participated in another marijuana robbery in Highland. During that incident, Nneji told the court, the trio carried — but did not display or fire — the same gun that would later be used in the Dec. 1 holdup and shooting.

“All three of them were aware of the gun,” said Nneji of the alleged rip-off in Lloyd. “They took it with them for the purposes of using it if necessary.” 

Nneji also indicated that he would try to introduce evidence that Stansberry Sr. was a member of the Bloods street gang who had recruited Gardener into the group. In response to questions from Williams, Nneji conceded that there was no evidence that the Sawkill robbery was gang related.

Tuesday’s hearings also covered a photo array used by state police investigators to obtain an eyewitness identification of Stansberry Sr. (A second eyewitness apparently failed to pick Stansberry Sr. out of the photo lineup).

Nneji said he also planned to introduce a video shot from a dashboard camera that captured the shooting. Schindler, meanwhile, asked Williams to redact the audio portion of the dash-cam video to avoid exposing jurors to statements by the defendants or witnesses that might be inadmissible in court.

The pretrial hearings are expected to continue on Wednesday, July 3. Williams said that he would rule on some of the issues raised at a later date.

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