BANGOR — Moments after 19-year-old Tolbert Choneska was sentenced to prison for his role in a violent armed robbery in Clifton last March, a loud argument erupted between his mother and his attorney on the courthouse steps.
Choneska of Pleasant Point Indian Reservation, was one of three men accused of participating in the robbery at the Clifton Variety Store on Route 9, during which store owner James Hodgins was shot six times.
Choneska was in the store at the time of the shooting, but it was his 17-year-old brother, Cote Choneska, who authorities say pulled the trigger.
On Friday, Penobscot County Deputy District Attorney Michael Roberts said it appeared that Tolbert Choneska, though aware that his brother had a gun, had no idea he planned to use it.
Roberts recommended that Justice Andrew Mead hand down the same sentence that he did earlier this week to a third man, 18-year-old Travis Murphy, who provided the gun but stayed in the car while the robbery occurred inside.
Mead accepted that recommendation, sentencing Choneska to 20 years in prison with all but five years suspended and six years probation.
During the sentencing hearing at the Penobscot County Courthouse, Choneska’s attorney, Julio DeSanctis, argued for a lesser 15-year sentence with all but three years suspended.
DeSanctis outlined for the judge, Choneska’s difficult childhood, which included growing up in a dysfunctional alcoholic family. Choneska lived for some time with a foster family.
DeSanctis recalled Choneska’s time at Fifth Street School in Bangor, where he was an athlete and well-liked by teachers and students, he said.
DeSanctis said though Choneska had a learning disability, he was a reasonably bright young man and a “nice kid.”
He said he was “absolutely devastated” by what happened and had deep and sincere remorse for what happened to Hodgins.
Hodgins survived the attack, but has been left paralyzed from the waist down and with no use of his left arm. He is not expected to walk again, still has a bullet in his arm, and at 62 years old is living at a Bangor nursing home.
“I feel bad for what happened to Mr. Hodgins. If I could change places with him I would,” Choneska told the court.
A large young man, wearing a football shirt and jeans, Choneska clasped his hands in front of him and kept his head bowed during most of the proceeding.
Roberts said that Choneska cooperated with police from the beginning of the investigation and rather than being concerned about his own fate, “seems to have given up on himself.”
Roberts described Choneska as a passive man and a follower and said he firmly believed that he “never expected his brother would do this.”
He said witnesses who saw Choneska after the shooting said he was very shaken.
“If I had any reason to believe that he anticipated this shooting I would be asking for a much stiffer sentence,” Roberts said.
But despite his surprise about the shooting, Choneska did take money out of the cash register as Hodgins lay bleeding on the floor, Roberts said.
DeSanctis told the court that his client’s mother was still an active alcoholic who’s drinking had an “adverse impact on herself and her children.”
As he spoke, the mother Brenda Breeze of Pleasant Point, wept in the back row.
After Choneska was taken away to prison, Breeze approached DeSanctis on the steps of the courthouse to express her displeasure with his comments.
DeSanctis lit into Breeze, telling her he didn’t care whether she liked his comments and that he was doing his job, which was defending her son.
He accused her of doing a lousy job raising her children, to which she replied that her alcoholism was her business and no one else’s.
Judges routinely consider a defendant’s background and childhood hardships when handing down sentences and DeSanctis claims to have made the remarks to ensure the judge was aware of that part of Choneska’s life.
“I did what I did to provide your son a defense,” he yelled at the mother.
Breeze later said despite her alcoholism, she took no responsibility for her sons’ actions because it was their decision, not hers.
“I had a difficult childhood too,” she said.
Her other son, Cote Choneska, is expected to appear at a hearing in district court later this month to determine whether he will be tried as a juvenile or an adult. He is charged with attempted murder and remains incarcerated at the Maine Youth Center.
Also after the hearing, DeSanctis took the opportunity to say that he did not feel his client had been treated harshly as a result of his American Indian heritage.
William “Eric” Altvater, the lieutenant governor of Pleasant Point Reservation has made such allegations, as well as Sophia Paul, the mother of co-defendant Travis Murphy.
“The District Attorney’s Office has not treated these young men any differently than anyone else. This sentence reflected the seriousness of the crime that was committed. It has nothing to do with whether you are Native American, white or purple. Mr. Roberts nor anyone else in the DA’s office has never in my experience treated Native Americans any differently and I’ve represented many of them,” Desanctis said.