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Sentencing of Madison man in fatal Portage shooting postponed

August 9, 2017 GMT

The sentencing of one of two men accused of shooting a Rio man to death at a Portage hotel in December was postponed Tuesday.

Mario Brown Jr., 24, of Madison, entered a plea of no contest to reckless homicide in May in connection to the killing of Jason Laack, 22, at the Cattail Lodge on Dec. 18. Brown turned himself in to authorities the next day.

Tuesday’s hearing was scheduled for 1 p.m. in Columbia County Circuit Court’s makeshift trial room at the county’s new Health and Human Services Building in Portage. A half-hour before sentencing was due to start, the hallway outside the court began filling, mostly with family members and supporters of Laack, who died of a gunshot following what police described as a drug deal gone wrong.

In the days following the incident, officers also apprehended Marcus Johnson Jr., 23, who also was believed to have been involved in the shooting that happened in a room at the Cattail Lodge where Laack had been visiting his sister and her boyfriend.

Brown was charged with a single count of first-degree intentional homicide, amended on May 8 to include a second count of second-degree reckless homicide, which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years. Johnson’s case has yet to go to trial.

Laack’s mother, with a court victim-witness coordinator and a county IT specialist, had set up a computer with a projector to be incorporated in her victim impact statement. In the few minutes before the hearing was to start, the seats behind the prosecutor’s table began filling up, then spilled over to back rows of the other side, with a line of chairs separating them from the three women sitting together including Brown’s mother.

“I would request that this matter be reset,” said defense attorney Ronald Benavides, presenting an application to Judge Todd Hepler at the start of proceedings. “I believe it is better, under all the circumstances, to come back on another day.”

Benavides informed the court that he had not been able to go over the pre-sentence investigation report, which describes recommended sentencing from the Department of Corrections.

“There was a mixup in the prison system and the wrong Brown was brought,” said Benavides, explaining why he couldn’t review the report with Brown as previously planned. Benavides told the court Brown had also informed him that the prison had not given him warning of his transfer, meaning that he was not able to alert all of the family members who would otherwise want to be there to support him and speak on his behalf.

The report had been filed and available to relevant parties since July 6, District Attorney Jane Kohlwey said, objecting to the request.

“The whole issue on the writ is a ruse. If Mr. Benavides found out that a writ hadn’t been prepared, he could have asked for a writ himself. Or he could have notified the State that the defendant had been moved from the jail to the prison system and I certainly would have taken care of that,” Kohlwey said. “And when I found out this morning that the defendant was in the prison system, I took extraordinary steps to make sure that the defendant was here today.”

The date had been scheduled as the time Brown would be having his hearing and if there were other supporters wanted, Kohlwey argued, it was on Brown to contact them. According to online court documents, a notice of an Aug. 8 hearing was issued a day after his May 8 plea hearing.

“To have gotten themselves to the point that they are ready to speak to the court today and to hear the court’s sentence, and to be told, ‘No, it’s not going to happen today’ is a severe violation of their rights, of their considerations, and we ask that if at all possible we go forward today, even if we have to do so later today,” Kohlwey said of Laack’s supporters.

After speaking with the family, Kohlwey assured the judge that they were willing to stay as long as necessary Tuesday for sentencing to occur.

“I want to apologize to all of the members of the audience and the victim’s family. This is not the way the criminal justice system should work,” Hepler said. “Certainly, there should have been a writ issued well in advance of this and Mr. Benavides did not realize there had not been a writ, and somebody should have been notified and we have to all work in this together, but it appears that the ball was dropped.”

Despite Kohlwey’s argument that the family deserved closure, Hepler said co-defendant Johnson still would not go to trial before January and that with Brown in prison, having probation revoked along with a $1 million cash bond on top of that, he was not posing any risk to the public.

“There is a risk in going forward at this point that any sentence given could be overturned based on Mr. Brown not having an opportunity to fully review the pre-sentence investigation,” said Hepler, explaining for those visiting that it is a 59-page document that recommends a sentence of 15 years in prison and 10 years of extended supervision.

Reviewing such a document with his attorney, with such consequences, for a half-hour before a hearing would be an unacceptable disadvantage for him, Hepler said.

“I recognize that any postponement puts additional burden on the family of the victim and there was some hope of a conclusion (today),” Hepler said. “We can either do this right, or we can do it right now. And the court believes it is more important to do it right.”

Hepler ordered the sentencing hearing to be reset for a date in September, yet to be specified.