By LAMECH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporter
A MAN who owned up to hiding two pistols and live ammunition inside his pit bull’s dog house received a lesser sentence from the Court of Appeal than the mandatory minimum of four years established in late 2011.
Yesterday’s sentence reduction, however, came about on a 2-1 majority verdict as Christoph Iturriaga’s lawyer, Ian Cargill, was only able to convince two of three appellate judges that the mandatory minimum his client received in this case was inappropriate.
“This is a case that tugs at the heart, as he claimed he was only seeking to protect his family,” Justice Abdulai Conteh told the court.
Justice Conteh said Iturriaga’s “only saving grace is that he pleaded guilty at the first opportunity” and that his decision to accede to a three-year prison sentence was not to set a precedence for future cases disregarding early admission to offences.
Justice Stanley John agreed with Justice Conteh’s position to reduce the four-year sentence to three, adding that “we are not unmindful of the seriousness of the offence.”
Court of Appeal President Justice Anita Allen, however, respectfully disagreed.
“It is my view that the sentence is not unduly severe,” she said.
However, the appellate president added that given the 2-1 majority vote, “the sentence is reduced, by majority, to three years on each count to run concurrently.”
Around 3am on March 27, police acted on a tip that led them to execute a search warrant at an Eastern Road residence near Village Road.
They uncovered two 9mm pistols and live ammunition when searching a dog house behind the home. When interviewed in police custody, Iturriaga said he found the weapon and ammunition and hid them in the dog house.
He was arraigned in Magistrates Court a day later and pleaded guilty to possession of unlicensed firearms and possession of ammunition. He claimed to have kept them to protect his family, but would accept responsibility for possession of the illegal weapons and ammunition.
In yesterday’s proceedings, Mr Cargill noted that his client not only pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity, but was also gainfully employed at the time and had no prior run-ins with the law.
“He foolishly had the weapons in his possession for the protection of his family,” Justice Conteh said, adding that “this is not the wild, wild west.”
“You would think it is if you read the newspapers,” Justice Allen said.
Mr Cargill told the court that three years was an appropriate sentence instead of four.
“He could’ve gotten seven years,” President Allen added.
The lawyer accepted that point before Justice Allen continued her contributions.
“The prevalence of firearms is just over the top in New Providence,” she said. “What is he doing with these high-powered weapons in the dog house? To do what with?”
The lawyer said his client had no intention of using the weapons to do harm and added that Itturiaga could have fought the matter “but he didn’t, he owned up to it.”
The lawyer asked the court to also bear in mind his client is 29 years old. The submission prompted Justice Allen to say: “That’s not youth, that’s a grown man.”
Justice Conteh said the appellant was seeking to protect his daughters, but “now he’s putting the welfare of them at risk with him behind bars.”
Mr Cargill acknowledged the point, but added that “when we look at the streets, it’s a difficult decision to make, but nonetheless it’s illegal.”
“I’m begging the court,” Mr Cargill continued. “He’s very remorseful. It was stupid, he admits it.”
“I don’t believe that he found them but it’s up to my brother justices,” Justice Allen said.
Crown prosecutor Anishka Hanchell asked the court to uphold the lower court’s punishment. When asked about the Crown’s concession to a reduction in sentence, which was outlined in its written submissions, Ms Hanchell said that this was included in the event that the court was not of the opinion that the initial sentence imposed should be upheld.
“But the Crown first and foremost asks the court to uphold the sentence,” Ms Hanchell added.
The prosecutor added that the appellate court, on previous occasions, has upheld mandatory minimum sentences in firearm cases.
She said that in this case “two pistols were found, not one and they were found in the backyard.”
“If you want to protect your family you wouldn’t hide it in the dog house,” the prosecutor added.
Ms Hanchell further stated that although evidence was not presented in trial, police had to ask the appellant to restrain the pit bull to be able to search the dog house.
“I don’t believe it was done for the protection of his family,” the prosecutor said, adding that Iturriaga was shown mercy and “should be in fact, grateful for the four years he was given.”
Justices John and Conteh voted to allow the appeal while the appellate president voted against the appeal.