DANVERS — It started as a flash mob style shoplifting at a Danvers menswear store, after five young Boston residents allegedly charged in and grabbed an armful of Canada Goose parkas.
But, prosecutors allege, it quickly escalated into a robbery, one that left an elderly store employee with broken teeth and other injuries.
In the days after the Dec. 26, 2019, incident at Giblee’s on Route 114, the case was used as an example to challenge some of the tenets of criminal justice reform advocates, including the chief prosecutor in Suffolk County, where all five were from, who had vowed during her campaign not to prosecute crimes like shoplifting.
Meanwhile, the store’s owner said after that he’d lost roughly $40,000 to shoplifters who targeted the coats in 2018 and 2019, and that the Dec. 26 incident was the third in two weeks.
Now, a Salem Superior Court judge is weighing highly disparate requests from a prosecutor, who wants him to send all five to jail for at least a year, and from lawyers for the five — including one who on Monday continued to characterize the incident as a shoplifting. The defense attorneys are asking for probation.
It’s a case that highlights the significant disagreement that exists within the criminal justice system itself over how to respond to crime.
“It makes me wonder what’s the motivation to send this to a grand jury so quickly,” lawyer Alicia Andrews told Judge Salim Tabit on Monday. Andrews, who represents Mekeda McKenzie, 20, questioned why Essex County prosecutors went “to the grand jury so quickly over a $1,000 coat?”
“What about the man who was injured?” Tabit shot back in a raised voice.
During the 90-minute “lobby” conference Monday, Tabit told lawyers for the five — which also includes Bryon Vaughn, 25, of Dorchester, Lynasja Trimble, 22, and Kashawnii Ruomo-O’Brien, 21, of Mattapan, and Adriana James, 24, of Jamaica Plain — that he doesn’t believe the five set out to engage in violence that day.
But that’s what happened, said the judge.
The element of force turned what might have been a larceny case into robbery charges, with a sentencing enhancement because of the age of the injured store employee.
Prosecutor Erin Bellavia told the judge how the defendants “rolled in, five deep,” with a plan to grab as many coats as possible, stationing one as a lookout.
When the store’s owner, Alan Gibeley, and another employee tried to intervene, the group got into a “tug of war” over the coats. The older worker, a man in his 70s, was pushed into a rack, the prosecutor said. James managed to get out with one coat.
Bellavia suggested that McKenzie was the leader of the group, telling Tabit that she could be seen on the store’s security video tapping her head as if to signal the others. And, said Bellavia, police believe that McKenzie and James had been involved in an earlier theft from the store. Andrews, who has represented McKenzie for the past six weeks, disputed that, saying she was the youngest person there that day.
“Ms. McKenzie certainly didn’t want to hurt anybody,” Andrews said.
Tabit suggested that if that’s the case, why not just walk away once it’s clear that store employees are trying to intervene. “The gig is up,” said Tabit. “If the facts alleged by the Commonwealth are to be believed, there is a fight. There is an attempt to take the property regardless of an attempt to stop them ... if all you’re in there to do is steal, and it doesn’t work out, why the aggression? Why the pushing? Why the flailing?”
“Frankly, my sense is that the recommendation from Ms. Bellavia, under the circumstances, is incredibly reasonable,” said Tabit, referring to the prosecutor’s requests for 18-month jail terms for McKenzie and James — and 12 months in jail for Vaughn, Ruomo-O’Brien and Trimble.
James’ attorney, Thomas Pierce, asked the judge to impose a sentence of time served in the case. James had spent a couple of months in custody before she could come up with bail.
Like Andrews, however, lawyers for the other defendants asked the judge to continue the cases without a finding — a little-used disposition in Superior Court — and then dismiss them, saying they are hoping to preserve their records from a felony conviction.
Andrews said McKenzie, after realizing that the charges she’s facing are felonies, asked, “How am I going to get a job?” Andrews also said McKenzie herself had been working in the security field at the time, but hopes to go into medical coding.
Tabit acknowledged the stakes for the defendants, including one who is a college senior.
But he expressed concern with the message that a probationary sentence and dismissal would send, however.
“My biggest concern is for general deterrence,” said Tabit. “There needs to be an appreciation that these are serious offenses. We’re not going to brush them aside as if they mean nothing.”
The judge went on to ask all five defense attorneys to come up with potential conditions of probation that would make it meaningful — such as community service, letters of apology, and other penalties that say “we’re not going to allow people to simply steal, rob and take what they want without consequence.”
Probation alone, said the judge, “doesn’t give me the sense the defendants appreciate how serious this is, and it doesn’t tell the person whose teeth were broken and who suffers from PTSD that we are serious about this.”
“Why couldn’t there be, for example, an opportunity to meet up with a store owner, to get a sense of how hard people work, the money they invest, the time they spend running their business?” the judge asked.
Trimble’s attorney, Christopher Norris, said he’s already persuaded her to begin performing community service on her own, through Project Cope, and was willing to have her meet or write to the victims with an apology. But Norris questioned the amount of general deterrence a sentence could provide, pointing out that the sentence might only receive coverage in a local paper.
Other attorneys said a felony conviction — or any conviction at all — would likely hinder educational and job prospects. Ruomo-O’Brien’s attorney, Joseph Smith, said his client is a senior at Lasell University who hopes to pursue a career in psychology.
Tabit said he will also review video of the incident, which received national attention, and any additional information the lawyers want to provide, before coming up with a potential sentence.
The five defendants could still seek to go to trial if they are unhappy with the judge’s proposal.
Tabit said he will tell the lawyers on Nov. 18 what he is proposing if the five plead guilty.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis