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After judge vacates guilty plea, jury convicts man of gun possession

Lewis E. Laster went to prison the first time on a gun charge in 2011, mistakenly believing that his DNA was on the revolver.

When Laster later learned that the DNA belonged to others, he persuaded a judge to vacate his guilty plea and 3½-year sentence.

But after a trial last week, the 22-year-old Northumberland Avenue man now faces an even longer prison sentence for criminal possession of a weapon – this time convicted by jurors swayed by other evidence.

A jury deliberated for 40 minutes before returning a guilty verdict Friday.

“We were surprised the jury convicted him based on the lack of any forensic evidence linking him to the gun,” defense attorney Frank M. Bogulski said.

Laster now could face up to 15 years in prison when sentenced June 27 by State Supreme Court Justice M. William Boller.

Last year, Boller vacated Laster’s earlier conviction after he spent a year in prison, finding his plea to be invalid.

Laster’s previous lawyer, William A. Purks, told Laster that his DNA was found on the weapon, and Purks encouraged Laster to plead guilty, Laster said in an affidavit.

“At no time during the case did … Purks notify the Erie County District Attorney’s Office nor the court that I was excluded as a contributor of the DNA on the gun in question,” Laster said in the February 2012 affidavit. “The basis for my decision electing to plead guilty was based solely on the advice of my attorney who represented to me and my family that my DNA was on the gun.”

Purks could not be reached to comment.

After Laster began his prison sentence in 2011, his family hired Bogul-ski, who reviewed the laboratory report and told Laster that his DNA was not on the weapon.

“The laboratory report clearly indicates that I am not a source of the DNA on the weapon,” Laster said in his affidavit.

After a hearing, Boller vacated the conviction and sentence last Nov. 16, and Laster was released on his own recognizance.

At last week’s trial, Assistant District Attorney Paul J. Williams III emphasized what Laster told police officers at the time of his arrest and discounted the lack of forensic evidence.

“It’s not about ownership,” Williams told jurors of the gun charge against Laster. “It’s not about touching. It’s not about DNA.

“The police found a loaded, operable handgun in the defendant’s car,” Williams said. “Whether someone else shared in the possession of the gun or touched the gun does not matter.”

Police Officer Joseph E. Paszkiewicz testified that on Nov. 20, 2010, he noticed the barrel of a loaded .32-caliber Colt revolver under the driver’s seat between Laster’s legs.

Police had responded to Kensington and Thatcher avenues in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood after a robbery victim alerted police about the suspected robbers in the area. Laster was not involved in the robbery, but the police officer approached his Pontiac Grand Prix, parked nearby, when the victim pointed out the vehicle to police.

Laster did not say anything about the gun to the officer, who, after noticing it, asked Laster and two others in the car to get out. When other police officers arrived, the officers arrested Laster and the two others.

Police transported the three handcuffed men downtown in a patrol car so they could be booked. During the trip, Laster leaned forward and put his head through an opening in a divider separating the front and back seats.

“It’s my gun; can you let these two go?” Laster said, according to Police Officer Dawn M. Lopez, one of the officers in the patrol car.

Bogulski told jurors that Laster made that remark to protect his teenage brother, who he thought was also under arrest and with other police officers, and his friends. “He implicated himself for a crime he didn’t commit,” Bogulski said. “Family, loyalty and fear is what this case is about.”

Laster later retracted his statement in the patrol car, the defense lawyer said. “He was worried about his friends and his little brother,” Bogulski said after the verdict. “It certainly wasn’t helpful to his defense.”

Bogulski told jurors that “there was DNA from five people on the gun. They did not find Lewis Laster’s DNA on that gun. He’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. I believe the wrong person is on trial.”

District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said he refused to offer Laster a plea bargain – despite Laster’s requests – after Boller vacated his earlier conviction.