Joshua Martin: Probation in lieu of prison

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2010 - 7:42 AM

He got probation in lieu of prison time after he agreed to go into treatment.

If prosecutors had gotten what they wanted in October 2008, Joshua M. Martin would have been in a prison cell last Saturday instead of running from the cops minutes after a Maplewood police officer was shot and killed.

But District Judge John Connolly agreed with Martin's defense attorney that the troubled 19-year-old deserved one more chance to beat his demons.

So Connolly cut him a break. Instead of making Martin serve 6 1/2 years in prison for robbing a pizza delivery driver, Connolly reduced the sentence to 10 years of probation as long as Martin completed a 13-month rehabilitation program at a chemical dependency center in Minneapolis.

It was an unusually generous deal. Between 2004 and 2008, just eight of 63 offenders convicted of the same crime with records similar to Martin's received probation instead of the recommended prison sentence, according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

"These judges have to make these calls every day and it's tough," said David Warg, the attorney who represented Martin in the 2008 case. "They don't have crystal balls. And a judge's worst nightmare is what Connolly is dealing with right now."

Connolly, who is now retired from Ramsey County District Court but still occasionally hears cases, said he's not second guessing his decision.

He said Martin was a good candidate for the treatment program and seemed to be doing well when he graduated in November 2009.

Martin, now 21, sits in the Ramsey County jail, accused of kidnapping for a failed carjacking and second-degree murder for his role in the Saturday death of Maplewood police Sgt. Joseph Bergeron.

Prosecutors believe Martin's friend, Jason Jones, shot Bergeron in the head after the two men bungled a robbery that morning.

"I believe in treatment for chemically dependent offenders," Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said this week. "But I do not believe those programs should be used for those individuals with a violent criminal history."

'Less blameworthy'

In 2008, Connolly said he was willing to forgo prison time because Martin, who had used alcohol and drugs since he was 12, was willing to submit to substance abuse treatment, showed remorse for the robbery and took responsibility for the crime.

Richard Frase, a criminal law professor at the University of Minnesota, said criminals with untreated drug problems sometimes get a break because their addictions make them seem "less blameworthy."

"The guidelines are recommendations, they are not mandatory minimums," Frase said. "And they do give judges exceptions. And apparently, the judge found that here."

Martin's childhood was harrowing, according to a family history compiled by his defense attorney.

His father had substance abuse problems and frequently mistreated Martin and his sister. His stepfather beat him.

Martin was 12 when he drank his first beer. By 14, his father, Frank Martin, had introduced him to cocaine.

His family was poor and moved from apartment to apartment.

At one point they settled in a "very low-income building with a lot of gang activity," according to Tawnya Konobeck, Joshua Martin's sister.

During one of Frank Martin's confrontations with police, Joshua, then a toddler, found himself facing officers with drawn guns. "The trauma for Josh was severe," his sister said.

In the family history, which was used to bolster the case for treatment, Konobeck said her brother was medicated for attention deficit disorder.

He was malnourished and taunted by peers because he was short. To avoid being picked on, she said, "He had to puff up, be a loose cannon."

Martin, an admitted gang member, had several brushes with the law as a juvenile. At 17, he pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery after approaching victims with a BB gun and demanding money.

A year later, he was arrested along with a juvenile accomplice for again using a BB gun to hold up a delivery driver attempting to drop off pizzas in West St. Paul.

He was caught after the restaurant traced the cell phone used in ordering the pizzas to Martin's friend.

Despite his troubles, Martin showed some promise. He worked part-time at local restaurants and participated in a Catholic Charities' Young Men in Transition program while attending St. Paul Central, where he graduated in 2007.

Considering Martin's dysfunctional upbringing, Martin deserved a second chance, even if it was a long shot, Warg said.

"In retrospect, it doesn't look like it was a good bet," Frase said. "But at the time, it might have seemed worth doing."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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