WATERLOO -- The New Mexico man accused of killing a Waterloo waiter in his apartment remained silent before he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a lesser charge in the slaying Friday.

"I have nothing appropriate to say," Joseph Michael Lawrence, 23, said after entering an Alford plea. By entering the plea, Lawrence didn't admit guilt but acknowledged he likely would have been found guilty of killing Jason Edwin Gage, who was openly gay, had the matter gone to trial.

Originally charged with first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence, Lawrence entered the plea to the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

Judge Bruce Zager formalized the plea agreement and sentenced Lawrence to prison for 50 years, which is the mandatory punishment for the charge under Iowa law. Lawrence has to serve at least 70 percent of the sentence -- 35 years -- before he is eligible for parole.

Under the agreement, Lawrence waived his right to future appeals of the plea and the sentence and agreed to pay a $150,000 civil penalty to Gage's estate.

More than 25 of Gage's friends and family attended the court hearing.

Gage's older sister, Michelle Gage, told Lawrence he was hiding behind his silence.

"The reality of that situation is you chose the easy way out," she said.

She said the evil he sowed would return on him threefold and promised to attend his parole hearings to asked it be denied.

"You are a murderer, and you robbed my family of a precious gift," said Michelle Gage, who has become active in gay and lesbian causes since her brother's death.

With the plea, Gage's family can begin to start their lives over by living for Gage's memory and not for Lawrence's next court date, Michelle Gage said.

Lawrence's silence leaves open questions about the motive for the crime, which ended the life of Jason Gage, a 29-year-old waiter at the Brown Bottle and a student at the College of Hair Design, and sent Lawrence to prison. Lawrence had moved to Cedar Falls to be with his then-girlfriend shortly before the crime.

There were only two people in the Gage's apartment at the Russell Lamson Building when the crime occurred, and one of them is dead, said Black Hawk County Attorney Thomas Ferguson.

He said without Gage's account, the authorities are left with a string of facts and theories to explain the violence.

Lawrence had told his then-girlfriend that he beat up Gage after Gage made sexual advances toward him. He told police he hit Gage with a bottle and stabbed him in the neck with a peace of glass, according to court records.

"We can't say for sure that Jason Gage was killed because he was gay. We may have our theories as to what happened, but we can't say he was killed because he was gay," Ferguson said.

What the evidence shows and witnesses said is that Gage and Lawrence had met weeks before his death through mutual friends. Then on the night of March 11, the two arrived separately at the same Waterloo bar, Ferguson said.

After the bar closed, they went to Gage's apartment. The evidence shows Lawrence went voluntarily, Ferguson said.

Two glasses were out, suggesting they were drinking and watching television, he said.

Gage's body lacked any defensive wounds -- marks on his hands or arms that would have showed if he had fought off an attack, Ferguson said. The fatal blows came from blunt force trauma to the head.

The stab wound from the glass likely came after Gage was already mortally wounded, Ferguson said.

He said the scene at the apartment didn't suggest any large-scale fight or confrontation.

Another piece of evidence for the state was that fact Lawrence didn't call for help after assaulting Gage. He said Lawrence didn't show any injuries when police caught up with him about three days later after finding Gage's body in the apartment.

Contact Jeff Reinitz at (319) 291-1578 or jeff.reinitz@wcfcourier.com.

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