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Judge gives Tonawanda resident a chance to put his past behind him

By Howard B. Owens

Not too many criminal defendants have good things to say about the prosecutors who came down on them hard and recommended they be locked away for as long as possible. 

Isaac D. Abrams has only good things to say about Melissa Lightcap Cianfrini.

"She isn't God but she's right up next to him," Abrams said Thursday from inside a smokeshop he's opening on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation. "She's up there. She's a force to be reckoned with. Don't (expletive) with her."

Cianfrini was the first assistant district attorney in early 2018 when Abrams was sent to prison as a 17-year-old for one-and-a-third to four years for making terroristic threats. That conviction has now been expunged, but Abrams had a track record at the time, as Cianfrini noted back then, that indicated he was a young man out of control.

In arguing against any kind of leniency for Abrams, Cianfrini told then County Court Judge Charles Zambito that Abrams had engaged in increasingly violent acts, shown a disregard for authority and human life, and violated his release under supervision contract numerous times.

"He's a high risk to the community," said Cianfrini, who is now the County Court judge. "Look at his statements. He seriously minimizes his conduct. He said that he gave people something to talk about at dinner. This is not somebody expressing remorse."

Abrams said he has no bitterness toward Cianfrini.  She was doing her job, and in doing her job, she put him in a position that forced him to look at the world differently.

"What she put me through," he said, "I honestly feel that if I hadn't gone through that, I would still be a bad little shit just like everybody else. I had an eye-opener. She gave me an eye-opener."

And life in prison isn't something he wants to repeat.

"I went through horrible experiences," Abrams said. "I have scars on my eyebrows now that are permanent. I have stab wounds on my back and on my shoulders. I went from prison to prison. It was a horrible, horrible experience."

Not that getting his life straightened out has been easy for Abrams.  He's had setbacks. He's made mistakes. He's had people set up roadblocks. But he says he's determined to be a successful businessman, to become wealthy, and at age 22, to be an example for younger kids on the Tonawanda Indian Reservation that success is possible and you can overcome life's errors.

He was in court on Wednesday, standing before Cianfrini on an attempted burglary conviction, prepared for the worst because of one of the mistakes he's made while on his path toward redemption (he carried to court a plastic grocery bag filled with toiletries and personal items in case he was sent back to prison).

The possibility of going back to prison
In August, Abrams admitted to attempted burglary in the second degree. The incident involved Abrams entering the residence of a man identified as his mother's boyfriend on Dec. 29 after the boyfriend reportedly abused her.

First Assistant District Attorney Joseph Robinson, on Wednesday, was just as certain as Cianfrini was in 2018, that Abrams deserved no leniency in sentencing.

The 2018 felony conviction was off limits for Robinson to cite since the record is sealed, but Robinson had plenty of material to draw from to try and make the case that Abrams deserved prison time.  He said Abrams has a history of misconduct going back to high school, that he had violated terms of a conditional discharge on another conviction, and that he had faced a criminal contempt charge in Erie County.

"Mr. Abrams is not a good fit for a community-based, probationary sentence," Robinson told Cianfrini. "He enters the house of another person and then strikes the victim and claims it was in defense of his mother because of prior abuse. He took the action of judge, jury and executioner. That is not the way society works."

Robinson recommended four years in prison (the statutory range on the conviction is 2-7 years) and three years post-release supervision (parole).

Defense Attorney Fred Rarick offered a very different take on his client's prospects for complying with the terms of a probationary sentence. He noted that Abrams has been in full compliance with the terms of his release-under-supervision contract while awaiting sentencing, that his client had been diagnosed with mental health issues that had never been treated, and that his client understands that he mishandled the situation in December that led to his arrest.

Rarick said his client's relationship with his father is non-existent, and when mental health treatment was recommended for Abrams as a teenager, his mother decided the trip to counseling was too far to drive, so Abrams never got the help he needed.

He said Abrams had previously witnessed his mother being abused and on the night of this incident, his mother, instead of calling the police, called her son to say she had been abused. Rarick suggested that she knew her son, who has anger management issues, would take matters into his own hands.

She should have called the police, Rarick said.

But once she called Abrams, the young man should have called police, he said.

Sending Abrams to prison, Rarick said, would disrupt the positive path the young man has been on -- a year ago, he opened a small smoke shop on the reservation and was getting ready to open a second.

When it was his turn to talk, Abrams told Cianfrini, "when I first met you, I didn't really like you. But then I went to prison and I realized you did a lot for me. You changed me. You changed the way I talk. You changed the way I walk." 

He said he wanted to lead the younger generation on the reservation out of trouble.

"I'm a changed man from when you first met me," he said.

He said he felt like he had let her down and that he understood if she was disappointed in him.

"I promise I will never be in a situation like this again," Abrams said.  "If something like this happens again, I'm calling 9-1-1.  I promise."

Call 9-1-1
That promise was put to the test on Thursday night.

On Thursday afternoon, a new pre-built building was delivered to 368 Martin Road in Basom, the site of Abram's new smokeshop and dispensary.

Shortly after he opened the doors for the first time, he met with The Batavian and discussed his future plans.

That night, at about 10:45 p.m., the Alabama Volunteer Fire Department was dispatched to 368 Martin Road.  The Batavian sent a text message to Abrams, who responded that he had already been told of the fire by a family member, was on his way to the shop, and that he had called the police to report the crime.

As he promised Cianfrini, rather than get mad, he called 9-1-1.

The fire burned itself out before fire crews arrived on scene.  The fire was intentionally set, a fire investigator said, at the base of the building by the front door.  It caused some minor heat damage to the metal plates at the base of the door.  A Sheriff's deputy opened a criminal investigation.

Earlier in the day, Abrams said that many people on the reservation encourage him and are happy to see him turning his life around.  Others, he said, want to pull him back down.

When asked why he thought anybody would try to torch his new building, he said, "jealousy."

"This would  be the bad crowd," he said, "like the alcoholics, the drunks, the ones who like to stay out all night."

Rather than prison, an opportunity
Earlier in the day, Abrams was full of enthusiasm for his new business.

With only a few cartons of cigarettes and some jars of marijuana in the new building, Abrams said it was just a start.  He is funding the venture with profits from the Weeping Willow, his first smokeshop on Purdy Road.  

On his small plot of land, Abrams cleared trees and put down gravel.  As a reporter looked on, the excited young man paced off his expansion plans -- where the handicap-accessible ramp will go, leading to double doors and windows, and shelves filled with product.  Abrams sees it all in his mind.

"My dreams are progressing every day as every day I’m one step farther into becoming a new man, a man in new business and a man of new character," Abrams said. "My dreams and goals for the shop are just to succeed in an all-around aspect so I can help my customers, friends, and family succeed around me, too. I really would like for the business to succeed. It took a lot of community members to get this far, and a lot of trust, so there’s no going back now all I can say now is 'Hi. My name is Isaac Abrams. How may I help you and be at your service.'"

The fire, he said later, was a momentary setback, but just financially, not "mentally or spiritually, and tomorrow is a new day with lots of potential."

Abrams is getting the chance to pursue his dreams because the person who took a dim view of the young man's future in 2018 is now persuaded that he deserves a shot at building something better for himself.

On Wednesday, after Robinson, Rarick, and Abrams all spoke, Judge Cianfrini said she needed a few minutes to research something and adjourned the court.

When she returned from chambers, she asked Abrams whether, if given the opportunity to go through Mental Health Court -- which would mean no prison time if he successfully completes the program -- would he commit himself to follow through and do what he needed to do.

A beaming Abrams said he would. He turned around so he was speaking to the whole court and said, "if anybody was here and saw me here before, I'm a changed man.  I promise you I'm not the same person you saw here before."

Cianfrini explained that Abrams will be screened for Mental Health Court to ensure he's a good candidate for the program, and once the screening is done, she can place him in the program.

Embracing what Abrams said about being an example to younger people on the reservation, she told him he had a chance to show a younger generation that the justice system is a place to "get help and rehabilitation and that it's not just for punishment."

Robinson told Cianfrini that he wanted to place on the record his objection to giving Abrams an opportunity to go to Mental Health Court.

Inside his new shop on Thursday, Abrams was nothing but grateful to Cianfrini.

"She honestly changed my life around.  I thank her for helping me. She did a lot.  Honestly, I wouldn't be here in these shoes.  I wouldn't be free today," he said. "I wouldn't be thinking clearly. I would have done none of that. I would have nothing.  I'd probably still be that broken little shit."

Photos by Howard Owens. Top photo, Isaac Abrams outside his new smokeshop.  Inset photo, file photo of Melissa Cianfrini in 2018 at a press conference on an unrelated case.

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