Paul R. Dawson, one of the five defendants in the mistaken identity killing of a Lancaster man, accepted a plea bargain Tuesday and agreed to testify against the other four charged in the slaying.
At the close of an evidence suppression hearing before Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza, Dawson, 20, of Lockport Road, Niagara Falls, admitted to first-degree gang assault. That charge carries a maximum prison term of 25 years, but Sperrazza accepted the prosecution's recommendation that she sentence Dawson to no more than 15 years.
John J. Carney III, Dawson's attorney, said he hoped his client's cooperation will bring him a sentence as short as the five-year minimum. Sperrazza scheduled sentencing for Feb. 10.
Shane W. Craft, 19, and David F. Kennerknecht, 23, of the Town of Niagara, and Charles J. Maggadino, 25, and James A. Reed Jr., 18, of Niagara Falls are scheduled to go on trial Jan. 17 on second-degree murder charges.
All five had been charged with fatally beating and kicking Nicholas Kwasniewski, 23, last June 4 on the front lawn of a home at 610 19th St. in Niagara Falls. Kwasniewski died the next day in Erie County Medical Center, Buffalo, after being kept on life support long enough for his organs to be donated.
During his testimony as the concluding witness at the hearing, Niagara Falls Detective Frank J. Coney said Stacy Foote of Grand Island, an eyewitness, picked Dawson's picture from a group of photographs.
"I observed him outside the fight, just standing there," Coney quoted Foote as saying.
"Based on all the information we have, [Dawson] was the least culpable," First Assistant District Attorney Timothy R. Lundquist said.
Sperrazza did not ask Dawson, a ninth-grade dropout, to describe the crime. He merely had to answer a series of yes-or-no questions before pleading guilty.
Carney said the law considers Dawson guilty because he was present during the attack on Kwasniewski. "There's no admission he took part in any assault. He was present while others did. The eyewitness identified my client as just standing there," Carney said. "There is some information that my client tried to intervene in the assault."
Foote was the girlfriend of Nicholas Payne, a Grand Island man whom, prosecutors say, Craft said had beaten him and taken a gold bracelet March 31 in the Town of Niagara. Payne has not been charged in that case.
Second Assistant District Attorney Holly E. Sloma said the attack on Kwasniewski occurred at a home near Falls Greenhouse, a business at 19th Street and Walnut Avenue owned by Payne's father, Ross Payne.
Coney testified that, when shown a group of photos July 22, Ross Payne had picked Craft's picture as that of "an individual who was coming around the greenhouse about two weeks before the [fatal] incident saying, 'Nick, come out. Nick, come out.' "
Defense lawyers are seeking separate trials for the other defendants because they intend to offer contradictory defense arguments on behalf of their clients.
Sperrazza said she intends to try the case with two juries simultaneously, but didn't say how the defendants would be assigned to the juries.
She said that, between the two sets of opening and closing arguments, the juries would be in the courtroom for testimony relevant to the defendants assigned to them.
Joel L. Daniels, Kennerknecht's lawyer, told Sperrazza he intends to argue against the two-jury plan in writing.