LANCASTER — County prosecutors said Thursday they hoped the stiff sentence a judge dealt a 26-year-old Northfield man would serve as an example and help stem the growing tide of prison contraband cases.
When 11 of Coos County's grand jury indictments in December were handed up for charges related to the attempt to smuggle contraband — mostly drugs — into the Northern N.H. Correctional Facility in Berlin, both Coos County Attorney John McCormick and Assistant Coos County Attorney Stephen Murray acknowledged things were out of hand.
They said their county and the state had a large and growing problem with illegal substances making their way to inmates and a deterrent was needed.
Both prosecutors were present in Coos County Superior Court Thursday morning when Vincent Bitetto Jr. was led in handcuffs before Judge Peter H. Bornstein for sentencing. A jury earlier this year had convicted Bitetto on three counts: conspiracy to deliver articles to prisoners, delivery of articles to prisoners and attempted sale of a controlled drug, marijuana, intended for an inmate.
What made the case stand out for Murray, who handled Bitetto's prosecution, was that one item he tried to slide past prison authorities was a knife.
"I don't know who that knife was intended to cut; it wasn't to cut cheese," Murray told Bornstein.
A row of Bitetto supporters, including his father and grandfather, attended the sentencing. Three were allowed to speak. Vincent Bitetto Sr. asked the judge for leniency on behalf of his son whom he said could still have a bright future despite his legal troubles, but not if he was locked up long term.
"Let's not just put him behind bars and throw the key away," he said.
"He's a young man," Bitetto's attorney, Joseph Garrison of the Public Defender's Office in Littleton, told Bornstein. "If he's going to be reformed, it's got to be now."
But Murray and Bornstein said that the younger Bitetto is already serving a state prison sentence in connection with a resisting arrest charge in Belknap County.
And the judge had a copy of Bitetto's criminal record in front of him.
"This is the 22nd conviction in the past eight years, and a number of felonies, that's one heck of a criminal record to accrue in eight years; that's all I can say," Bornstein told Garrison.
Bornstein sentenced Bitetto to 3½ to 7 years in prison on the conspiracy charge, and 3½ to 7 years on the delivery charge, to be served consecutively, and in addition to the time he's already serving. Each term also carries an additional 150 days behind bars for each year of the minimum sentence.
Bornstein suspended for 10 years from the day of his release a 3- to 6-year sentence on the conviction for sale of a controlled drug.
Before handing down the sentence, the judge offered his own views on New Hampshire's problem with prison contraband, likening what goes on behind bars, particularly in Concord and Berlin, to conditions in "some crime-ridden neighborhoods in larger cities."
Noting Garrison's contention that there was "no victim" in Bitetto's three Class B felonies, Bornstein said, "If a knife gets into a prison, there's probably going to be a victim."
Afterward, Murray acknowledged Bornstein's attempt at providing a deterrent to others contemplating smuggling items to inmates.
"It's one step," he said, and McCormick agreed.
"It's a starting place to do what we can about this problem," the county attorney said.