Mayor, city prosecutor say 7 years isn’t enough
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
On the same day officials proclaimed a new war on crime, a man with a prior manslaughter conviction was spared the “substantial sentence” that city leaders said they would have preferred.
City officials expressed disappointment over Steve Gardner’s seven-year prison sentence he received Thursday for armed robbery. Gardner previously was sentenced to three years in prison for fatally shooting Larry Robbins, a former Youngstown Pride professional basketball player in March 2003.
Had he been convicted of all charges and specifications in the new indictment, and had maximum, consecutive sentences been imposed, Gardner could have been sentenced to 46 years in prison.
“The benefits of having him serve a long, long time [in prison] far outweigh the risk of an acquittal,” said Mayor Jay Williams, adding that he thinks this case should have gone to trial. “This guy should have been taken to the mat in my opinion.”
On Thursday, federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies announced they were teaming up to crack down on gun crimes throughout the Mahoning Valley.
The original indictment, stemming from a March 1 incident on the city’s South Side, charged Gardner with aggravated burglary; improperly discharging a gun into a house and aggravated robbery, with firearm and repeat violent-offender specifications; and being a felon with a gun.
Gardner, 26, of Ford Avenue, pleaded guilty only to aggravated robbery with a gun specification and being a felon with a gun before Judge R. Scott Krichbaum of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court. The judge imposed the nonappealable seven-year sentence agreed to by the prosecution and defense.
Both Police Chief Jimmy Hughes and city Prosecutor Jay Macejko said they were disappointed by the short prison term.
“A much-longer sentence would have made the streets of Youngstown much safer,” Hughes said. “I would love to have seen this individual get double-digit years in prison — 20, 30 or 40 years. It would appear to be a decent case, a solid case for us.”
“When you encounter an individual like Steve Gardner, you always hope that a very substantial sentence will be imposed. ... He’s a dangerous fellow,” Macejko said.
“I felt it was a strong and very winnable case,” for the prosecution, Macejko said based on what he knew when he initially filed charges in municipal court. “I didn’t feel there were any weaknesses at the time I charged it.”
But Robert J. Andrews, an assistant county prosecutor, said witnesses disagreed concerning the events in the most recent case, and the prosecution faced the risk that a jury could have acquitted Gardner on all counts.
Jennifer McLaughlin-Smith, another assistant county prosecutor, said the seven-year term that Gardner received “was more than acceptable to the victims. That was actually even more time than they were looking for, so they were completely satisfied with the outcome of the case.”
She said she thought the case would have been winnable for the prosecution had a trial occurred. She added, however, “I would always be reluctant to say that anything is a sure-fire winner.”
Andrews confirmed that he spoke by phone to all three victims, and all said they were satisfied with the seven-year prison term.
None wanted to come to court or make a victim-impact statement, so the judge proceeded immediately from accepting the plea to sentencing, Andrews added. “With the facts of the case, it was a fair resolution,” he said of the sentence.
The mayor disagreed.
“I, as a mayor, would have been willing to take the risk of letting a jury decide,” Williams said.
“We would oppose any early release” of Gardner, McLaughlin-Smith said, adding the defendant was positively identified by two of the victims.
Gardner wasn’t arrested until about two weeks after his crimes, and the gun he used was never recovered, McLaughlin-Smith said.
Gardner’s purpose in committing these crimes was to collect a debt, the details of which are unclear, she added.
In the March 1 incident, police reports said Gardner broke a screen-door window, kicked in the front door and entered the house in the 800 block of Cameron Avenue.
Gardner, who was seeking a man who escaped from the house as he arrived, ripped a phone cord from the wall and pointed a long-barreled revolver at everyone in the house, police reports said.
Gardner then chased another man, who ran from the house, into the front yard, robbing him of $20 at gunpoint, fired five shots into the house and left in the car in which he arrived, reports said. There were no injuries.
A spokesman for Judge Krichbaum said the county prosecutors told the judge they thought the plea and sentence deal they made was the best outcome because they did not have a solid case; and the spokesman noted that Gardner likely faces additional prison time for violating his parole on the manslaughter case by being arrested on these new charges.