The fate of a Kingston man accused of murder in the aftermath of a marijuana rip-off gone very wrong may rest on whether jurors believe Maurice Stansberry Sr. and his accomplices displayed a gun during the incident, or simply grabbed the weed and ran.
Maurice Stansberry Sr. went on trial Monday, July 22 for the Dec. 1, 2018 killing of Mark Lancaster. Lancaster was slain by a single gunshot wound as he confronted Stansberry, his then-17-year-old son, Maurice Stansberry Jr., and a third teen, then-17-year-old Kevin Gardener, on Sawkill Road. The shooting occurred after the Stansberrys and Gardener allegedly stole two ounces of marijuana from Lancaster’s son, Jahsi Quilles, at a nearby trailer park. In addition to second-degree murder, Stansberry is charged with robbery and criminal possession of a weapon.
Stansberry Sr. is charged under the state’s felony murder statute. The law holds that if someone is killed during the commission of, or immediate flight from, a felony crime, all participants can be held culpable for the victim’s death — regardless of whether they directly caused it. That means the prosecution doesn’t have to prove that Stansberry fired the fatal shot, just that he was an active participant in the robbery that led to it.
In his opening statement, Stansberry Sr.’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Russell Schindler, told jurors the evidence would show that the gun that killed Lancaster was never displayed during the robbery. Instead, Schindler said, the trio either used fake $100 bills to buy the weed, or simply ran off without paying when it was handed to them. That, Schindler argued, constituted the misdemeanor of petit larceny — a crime not covered under the felony murder statute.
“If there’s no felony, there’s no felony murder,” Schindler said.
Stansberry Sr. was initially slated to stand trial alongside his son and Gardener. But Gardener pleaded guilty to murder last week, days before the trial was to begin. In exchange for the guilty plea, County Court Judge Donald Williams agreed to sentence the now-18-year-old to 20 years to life in state prison. If convicted at trial, Gardener faced a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
Under questioning by Senior Assistant District Attorney Emmanuel Nneji, Gardener admitted that he shot Lancaster after Stansberry Sr. passed him a 9mm handgun. Gardener also testified that Stansberry had displayed the weapon during the weed rip-off. Despite his testimony, prosecutors did not include Gardener on a list of potential witnesses for the trial. Stansberry Jr., meanwhile, cut a deal with prosecutors last month to testify against his father at trial. The terms of that deal are unknown.
Prosecutors began laying out their case this week by presenting a series of witnesses — including Stansberry Jr. — to testify about the robbery and subsequent killing.
Stansberry Jr. testified that on the morning of the incident, he was at home on Washington Avenue when his father asked him to reach out to Gardener, who lived nearby. The three then hatched a plan to steal two ounces of marijuana from a 16-year-old acquaintance, Patrick Sutton, who lived at the Sawkill Trailer Park. It wasn’t the first time the group had pulled off a marijuana heist. Back in October, Stansberry Jr. testified, he drove his father, Gardener and his then-girlfriend to meet a weed dealer in Highland. After the dealer handed the weed through the window of Stansberry Jr.’s Honda Civic, he drove off without paying. Stansberry Jr. testified that his father brought a 9mm handgun to the Highland rip-off, but never displayed it during the transaction.
After setting up the deal with Sutton, Stansberry Jr. testified that he drove his father and Gardener to the trailer park, where they met up with him and a neighbor, 14-year-old Chase Dugan. Lynch told them that he did not have the marijuana yet. The group then hung around the trailer park waiting for the delivery.
At one point, Stansberry Jr. said, he and Gardener left the park and began driving back home to retrieve another fake $100 bill to buy a belt from Sutton. They cut the trip short after Stansberry Sr. called to ask them to return. Stansberry Jr. testified that he parked his car in a position to make a quick exit from the trailer park, while his father and Gardener went to make the transaction out of site between two trailers. Stansberry testified that before exiting the vehicle, his father removed the handgun from a pink backpack and placed it in a coat pocket.
Meanwhile Quilles, and his friend, 17-year-old Sebastian Lynch arrived at the trailer park in a Honda Pilot SUV driven by Quilles’ father, Mark Lancaster. Quilles testified that he planned to sell two ounces of marijuana provided by his father to Lynch for $250 who in turn planned to sell it to Stansberry for $400. Quilles said he saw Stansberry Jr. sitting in the parked Civic as he entered the trailer park. Then, he and Lynch walked over to meet Gardener and Stansberry Sr. Quilles testified that Stansberry Sr. began haggling over the price and asked to see the marijuana.
“As soon as I handed it to him to look at, he told Kev to get the money from the car,” Quilles testified. “Then he pulled out a gun, racked it and said, ‘Don’t nobody do some stupid shit or you’re going to get shot.” Lynch, who was standing next to Quilles, and Dugan, who said he was on a nearby porch, both testified that they saw Stansberry Sr. display the weapon before running back to the waiting Civic.
The fatal chase
Stansberry Jr. testified that he didn’t see the marijuana transaction, but said he saw his father and Gardener running towards his car. After they got in, he said, he drove off and headed back towards Kingston on Sawkill Road. Quilles and Sebastian testified that after the holdup, they ran back to the Honda Pilot where Lancaster was waiting and told him that they’d just been robbed.
“He was upset with me,” said Quilles describing his father’s reaction to the news. “I don’t think he believed me about the gun at first.”
Lancaster then took off in pursuit. About a mile down the road, the SUV caught up to the fleeing Civic, pulled in front and forced it to stop. Quilles, Lancaster and Lynch jumped out and surrounded the car. Lynch testified that he used a bike stand to try to break a window on the Civic, while Lancaster yanked open the driver’s side door and attempted to pull Stansberry Jr. out of the car. Stansberry Jr. testified that after he was forced to stop the car, his father, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, exclaimed, “I’m going to shoot one of these motherfuckers!”
Moments later, as Lancaster was attempting to pull him from the car while demanding his marijuana back, Stansberry Jr. testified that his father removed the gun from the backpack, chambered a round and handed it to Gardener in the backseat, saying, “Yo Kev, shoot him.” Lynch, meanwhile, testified that he saw the gun in Stansberry Sr.’s hands just before the shot was fired. Quilles, who said he ran back to the SUV to get his phone and call police, said he did not see the shot fired.
While Lancaster lay by the side of the round bleeding to death from a gunshot wound that entered his lower abdomen and exited his right buttock, Stansberry Jr. said he drove off and headed to a friend’s apartment at the Stony Run complex on Hurley Avenue. There, he testified, they smoked some of the stolen marijuana and flushed the remainder down a toilet. At some point, Stansberry Jr. said, his father handed the gun off to a female friend identified only as “Carrie,” who left the apartment with it. The weapon was never recovered. That evening, as heavily armed SWAT teams converged on the apartment complex, the three went outside and surrendered to police.
When was the gun first seen?
In his opening statement, and in cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses, Schindler sought to poke holes in the theory that anyone had produced a gun during the incident which preceded Lancaster’s death. Schindler pointed to a text conversation between Stansberry Jr. and his girlfriend as he sat his car waiting for “The bud man” to arrive. In the texts, Schindler said, Stansberry Jr. indicates that they planned to steal the marijuana either by paying for it with fake $100 bills or by simply running away. In response to a text asking why they don’t just take the weed at gunpoint, Stansberry Jr. wrote back, “We don’t want it to get that hot.”
“The plan was another scam wasn’t it?” Schindler asked Stansberry Jr. on cross examination. “You weren’t supposed to use any force.”
Prosecutor Nneji, meanwhile, pointed to another text in which Stansberry speculates, “I think my dad’s going to put the gun to his head.” Asked by Nneji why he wrote that, Stansberry Jr. replied, “I was just scared … about the whole situation.”
In his opening statement, Schindler also accused police of pressuring Patrick Sutton into claiming that Stansberry Sr. pulled a gun during the robbery. Schindler said Sutton did not tell a state police investigator about the weapon until the investigator suggested that he could be charged with attempted murder.
Finally, Schindler appealed to jurors to use their own common sense. Had the gun been produced at the scene of the rip-off, Schindler argued, Lancaster, Quilles and Lynch would not have chased the men who held them up.
“Who would get in a car and chase down a robber with a gun to get back two ounces of marijuana?” Schindler asked jurors. “It’s against human nature.”
Testimony continued this week, with final arguments expected on Thursday or Friday.