Convicted as juvenile, shooter in New London homicide first to try for early release

Family members of Bennie Gray Jr., who is serving a 23-year prison sentence for the 1997 shooting death of DeJohn Strong in New London and for a drug crime, traveled from as far as Arkansas hoping they would receive good news at a hearing Thursday in New London Superior Court.

They say Gray, now 34, has matured. They want him to come home. They were disappointed when the hearing did not happen, but listened politely as their lawyer outlined the complex legal strategy he is using in his efforts to secure Gray's early release.

Attorney Ralph C. Crozier says Gray's is the first of more than 200 cases in the state to reach a court docket in light of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that require states to give those sentenced to long prison terms for crimes committed as juveniles a "meaningful opportunity" to be released early. Connecticut lawmakers failed to pass a bill on juvenile resentencings during the last session, leaving it up to courts to decide each case individually.

Crozier acknowledges that Gray doesn't "fit the hole perfectly," since he was 18 when Strong was gunned down at a Michael Road apartment complex. But Crozier says he has something to work with, since Gray's 20-year sentence was tacked on to a three-year sentence for a drug crime Gray was charged with at age 17. Crozier is attempting to modify the three-year drug sentence, which would make Gray eligible for parole as early as February 2014, having served the mandatory 85 percent of his sentence. Should Gray serve his entire sentence, his maximum release date is in 2019, according to the Department of Correction.

Though Gray's family was looking forward to seeing him in the courtroom Thursday, he never was brought up from the courthouse lockup. Crozier said he met privately with Judge Hillary B. Strackbein and prosecutor Michael L. Regan, He said the judge asked the attorneys to submit briefs and return to court on Dec. 6.

Crozier acknowledged that the judge could refuse to hear the case, claiming she doesn't have jurisdiction, or could refuse to modify a three-year sentence that his client essentially has already served. He says he is ready to take the case to higher courts if necessary, but hopes for a favorable ruling in Superior Court that would enable Gray to go before the Board of Pardons and Parole as soon as possible.

Regan declined to comment.

Gray, a standout football player, was arrested along with his cousin, Tavorus Fluker of Groton, after witnesses reported that they had sped away from the crime scene on Michael Road in a red Jeep. Fluker pleaded guilty to a lesser crime and served a shorter prison sentence, but in 2008 was convicted of attempting to murder someone outside a Groton bar and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Gray's family and his attorney say Gray "took a fall" for Fluker in the Strong homicide, agreeing to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for what his attorney at the time said would be a six-year prison sentence.

"The reason you do that is because you're a kid. You're stupid," Crozier said. Hence, the Supreme Court decision requiring that those convicted as juveniles have opportunity to demonstrate that they have matured and rehabilitated, he said. Judge Thomas P. Miano sentenced Gray to 20 years, the maximum for the crime.

Strong, the victim, was 28 years old when he was killed. His family did not attend Thursday's proceeding, though Crozier said he took the proper steps to notify them.

Crozier, of Seymour, has his own legal problems. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, he was indicted in June on federal money-laundering charges for allegedly taking about $40,000 in drug proceeds from a client for an investment. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in February.

His license to practice law is active, according to the Judicial Branch Website.

k.florin@theday.com

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