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Worcester Councilors Call for State Gun Law Already Passed in 1975

By Tom Marino | March 28, 2024
Last Updated: March 28, 2024

WORCESTER – On Tuesday, March 26, the Worcester City Council passed a resolution, introduced by Councilor At-Large Kate Toomey, calling on the state legislature to, “ensure full sentencing be mandatory for the illegal possession of firearms.”

The Massachusetts legislature passed a one-year minimum, mandatory sentencing for illegal possession of firearms in 1975. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1986 that courts have no ability to sentence less than one year for this crime.

Mandatory minimum sentencing can present significant problems in the administration of justice. Mandatory minimum sentencing requirements remove the discretion of a judge to weigh the specific facts of an individual case and apply the law based on those facts in the interest of justice.

The language of the city council resolution:

“That the City Council of the City of Worcester does hereby call upon the State Legislature to fully enforce and enact any additional required legislation to ensure full sentencing be mandatory for the illegal possession of firearms.”

In 1974, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Bartley-Fox Law. The law is codified in M.G.L. c. 269, §10, which is titled “Carrying dangerous weapons; possession of machine gun or sawed-off shotguns; possession of large capacity weapon or large capacity feeding device; punishment.” The language relevant to sentencing says:

“The sentence imposed upon such person shall not be reduced to less than one year, nor suspended, nor shall any person convicted under this subsection be eligible for probation, parole, furlough, work release or receive any deduction from his sentence for good conduct until he shall have served such minimum term of such sentence.”

The Lindsey Case

In 1986, the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed there is no exemption to the law in Commonwealth vs. Sylvester Lindsey. Lindsey’s case, however, highlights how removing judicial discretion can lead to unjust outcomes.

According to the decision of the Surpeme Judicial Court, Lindsey and Edward Michel were coworkers. In August 1983, the two exchanged angry words while at work. After Lindsey declined Michel’s offer to fight, Michel charged at him with a knife. Lindsey fought off the attack without injury. He later went to the Dorchester District Court and sought a complaint against Michel for assault with a dangerous weapon. According to a New York Times article of April 6, 1986, Lindsey was told he would have to wait 10 days for a hearing.

The next day, co-workers informed Lindsay that Michel said he was going to “get him.”

During the morning of Wednesday, August 31, 1983, Lindsay left his Cambridge home for work. He carried a gun with him he bought years earlier in Illinois, though he did not have a license to carry a firearm. Shortly after 7 AM, while Lindsay waited at an MBTA station, Michel approached. When around 10 feet away from Lindsay, Michel pulled a knife from his jacket. When Lindsay saw the knife, he backed up and drew the firearm.

Michel began to charge at Lindsay, who fired a single round at Michel.

Lindsay returned home, contacted a lawyer, and subsequently turned himself in to police. A grand jury later indicted Lindsay for assault with intent to murder, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and unlawful carrying of a firearm on his person.

A jury found Lindsay not guilty of the two assault charges, and guilty of unlawful carrying of a firearm on his person. Lindsay appealed the decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

In its decision, the Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the evidence showed that although Lindsay shot Michel, he did so in self-defense. It also acknowledged that Lindsay had no previous criminal record, while Michel was a convicted felon at the time of the shooting and had pending armed robbery charges against him in a separate case at the time of Lindsay’s trial.

Although the threat was specific and the earlier assault by Michel with a knife “became a real and direct danger once again when Michel attacked the defendant with a knife at the MBTA station,” according to the court, it did not overturn the conviction for unlawful carrying of a firearm. The court wrote:

“Before the days of a one-year mandatory sentence, the special circumstances involving the accused could be reflected reasonably in the sentencing or dispositional aspect of the proceeding. That option is no longer available to the judicial branch of government in a case of this sort. Any relief that the defendant’s circumstances may warrant must come from one of the other branches of government.”

Then-Governor Michael Dukakis, who supported heavy restrictions on firearms, issued a pardon to Lindsey in June 1986. Without executive intervention, Lindsey would have served a year in prison and carried a felony conviction with him for the rest of his life.

Worcester’s Position

A city council resolution does not create a new law or ordinance, or have any other weight in law. Resolutions express the will of the council in its role in representing the residents of Worcester. Resolutions are a statement of values.

Toomey, Mayor Joe Petty, District Two Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson, District Three Councilor George Russell, and Councilors-At-Large Morris Bergman and Donna Colorio voted yes, approving the resolution by a single vote margin of 6 to 5.

According to city council, Worcester believes justice was served in Sylvester Lindsey’s case, and his possession of an illegal firearm deserves no more consideration than someone possessing a firearm whose motive is to coerce and intimidate in the course of a robbery, harassment, sexual assault, or abuse of a child.

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