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Judge lets man join Army as a condition of his release Falls resident sought to avoid jail, probation

Uncle Sam's old Army recruiting slogan "I Want You" does not apply to Michael P. Guerra.

Guerra, a 20-year-old Niagara Falls resident with a misdemeanor criminal history, told a Niagara County judge last week he wanted to join the Army but couldn't if he received probation or jail time for violating an order of protection.

Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza accommodated him. She gave him a conditional discharge on the agreement that he would join the Army in 30 days.

News of her decision has angered many Army personnel who say they don't want him. And even if they did, it would be impossible for Guerra to join the service under such circumstances.

A Pentagon spokesman said it would be against Army regulations to allow Guerra to join as a condition of his discharge after pleading guilty to one domestic violence misdemeanor.

"We believe any such procedure would be inappropriate," said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel. "Service in America's Army is a privilege and an honor. Our standards are so high that more than one third of American males age 18 to 24 can't even qualify."

It was not unusual during the Vietnam War era for judges to hand out Army-or-jail options. But that practice ended more than two decades ago. Since then, the U.S. military has worked hard to enhance its image as a selective and elite fighting force.

"We don't do this sort of thing anymore," said Mike Murk, a spokesman for the Syracuse Recruiting Battalion, which recruits for the Army and Army Reserves in Western New York.

Both attorneys and the judge in this case have been bombarded with phone calls and e-mails since Sperrazza granted Guerra the conditional discharge.

"The military people are all kind of outraged," said Assistant Public Defender Matthew P. Pynn.

Domestic violence activists aren't very happy either.

Pynn, Guerra's attorney, said many have misinterpreted Sperrazza's ruling. The judge was not forcing Guerra into the military, he said. Guerra was the one who expressed the interest.

"This is the kind of guy that a judge is often going to want to steer in the right direction," Pynn said. "He came into court with a payroll stub. He had a job. The impression I got was he knew he needed to do something with his life. This was a turning point for him."

Pynn and other lawyers said it's not uncommon for a judge to give young defendants with minor criminal records more lenient sentences requiring lifestyle changes to keep them out of trouble.

But advocates for domestic violence victims say Guerra needs to be punished, not rewarded.

"Whatever one might think of the military, it certainly is not an appropriate sentence for someone who has committed a crime," said Lorien Castelle of the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Guerra was charged with first-degree criminal contempt, a low-level felony, for violating an order of protection obtained by his ex-girlfriend and a female friend of hers. He agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.
Wojtaszek said if Guerra can't join the Army, he'll be resentenced. The judge's options for Guerra include up to a year in jail or three years' probation.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com tprohaska@buffnews.com

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