Gardener wants to take back guilty plea in Sawkill Road weed-heist slay

Kevin Gardener

A Kingston teen who confessed to a shooting and killing a man during a marijuana robbery gone wrong last year said in county court this week that he wants to withdraw his guilty plea.

Kevin Gardener, 18, claimed in court Tuesday that his attorney, veteran trial lawyer Paul Gruner, had forced him to plead guilty to second-degree murder back in July.

Gardener, along with Maurice Stansberry, 38, and his son Maurice Stansberry Jr., 18, were all charged with murder in the Dec. 1, 2018 shooting death of Mark Lancaster, 38, of Kingston. Lancaster was killed by a single gunshot wound to the abdomen after he confronted the trio in the aftermath of a marijuana robbery at the Sawkill Trailer Park. All three men were charged with murder under New York’s “felony murder” statute, which holds that if a person is killed during or immediately after a felony-level crime, all participants in that crime can be held culpable for the death.

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In July, days before he was set to go on trial alongside Stansberry Sr., Gardener accepted a plea deal. Under the terms of the deal, Gardener pleaded guilty to a single count of second-degree murder, while prosecutors would recommend a sentence of 20 years to life. The maximum sentence for second-degree murder in New York State is 25 years to life; the minimum 15 years to life. Before entering his guilty plea, Gardener told the court that he shot Lancaster after Stansberry Sr. handed him a 9 mm pistol during a fight which broke out following a post-robbery car chase. District Attorney Holley Carnright would later say prosecutors believed Gardener was lying about being the triggerman and forensic evidence pointed to Stansberry Sr. as the shooter.

On Tuesday, Oct. 1 Gardener appeared before County Court Judge Donald Williams for sentencing. In a move that surprised prosecutors — and his own attorney — Gardener said he was acting as his own lawyer and presented a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The single-sentence motion cited “ineffective” assistance of counsel and claimed that Gruner had forced him to accept the plea deal.

A visibly irritated Williams responded to Gardener’s gambit by pointing out that, in his July plea hearing, Williams had repeatedly asked Gardener if his guilty plea was voluntary and advised him of the consequences of a guilty plea. Williams noted that Gardener had not made any attempt to seek out a new attorney and suggested that the last-minute motion was intended as a delaying tactic. Williams added that he could simply throw out the plea agreement, let Gardener’s guilty plea stand and sentence him to the maximum.

“There are a lot of jailhouse lawyers running around at the [Ulster County Jail] and apparently somebody got your ear,” Williams told Gardener. “Keep it up, son, you’re buying yourself 25 years.”

Instead, Williams set a new sentencing date of Nov. 7. Williams also set an Oct. 31 hearing to hear arguments on whether the guilty plea could be withdrawn, and to determine whether Gardener had violated the terms of his plea agreement by making statements to a probation officer in a pre-sentencing interview that were inconsistent with his confession and guilty plea in July.

Gruner, who will no longer represent Gardener, declined to comment on his former client’s motion.

Maurice Stansberry Sr. was found guilty of second-degree murder at a jury trial in August. He is due to be sentenced on Oct. 3. Stansberry Jr. served as a prosecution witness in his father’s trial. Under the terms of his plea agreement, he is expected to plead guilty to a single count of robbery later this year or early next year.

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