Armed thugs feeling the crackdown

April 06, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Before May 1994, Anthony D. Hawks was just another drug defendant in Baltimore's crowded court system, anticipating a short jail term if convicted of selling cocaine and heroin on the city's west side.

But part way through his trial, prosecutors dismissed the state court case so that Hawks -- who already had three violent felony convictions -- could be charged with federal crimes. Hawks, convicted in November, is now serving 26 years behind bars.

The 39-year-old was among the first to be prosecuted under "Project Disarm," an aggressive effort to sweep guns off Baltimore streets. Under the program, which began last year and is being heralded today as a success, some repeat offenders accused of misdemeanor handgun crimes find themselves in federal court, where sentences are longer, there is no parole and those convicted must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

"If you carry a gun and you have a prior criminal record, we will get you off the street and put you in jail," said Art Gordan, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). "We want to make a sincere effort to end the shootings and the homicides."

Many defendants are surprised by the harshness of the federal system, he said. "When we started going after people in $H Baltimore, and the people were told they could get 15 years, they couldn't believe it. Some people convicted of murder [in state court] don't get 15 years." Robert Bonsib, a lawyer representing Hawks on his appeal, called the sentence his client received "draconian. . . . You can see the dramatic consequences. He went from facing a relatively minor sentence in state court to receiving a very substantial sentence on federal charges."

That's just fine with U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, who said Hawks' criminal record includes 30 arrests and four felony convictions for drug trafficking.

"What do we have to do to stop somebody from repeating violent crime," she asked. "We have a right to expect that after somebody has been convicted that many times that he be sent to prison for a long amount of time to keep him away from law-abiding citizens."

Prosecutors say that since "Project Disarm" began, 34 defendants have been referred for federal prosecution. Eight have been indicted, convicted or have pleaded guilty. On average, each had been arrested 14 times and had six convictions. The rest are being processed.

Authorities from the U.S. attorney's office, the ATF, the state's attorney's office and the Baltimore police plan to show off the program at a news conference today.

Prosecutors plan to review all the gun cases in the city going back several years to see whether anyone on the list can be indicted and tried on federal gun charges. Investigators look for suspects who have a felony conviction, particularly for drugs or guns.

Convictions in federal court typically mean a sentence of 10 to 15 years and another felony mark on a suspect's record. The same case in state court -- where a handgun possession charge is a misdemeanor -- means an average three- or four-year sentence.

Baltimore police Col. Ronald L. Daniel shakes his head as he pages through a 4-inch-thick ream of computer paper and reads the names of defendants charged with handgun violations in recent years.

Between Jan. 1, 1990, and Oct. 31, 1994, city records show 11,141 handgun cases, and many defendants have been arrested up to six times in the past four years.

"I'm sure that this year we are going [to] arrest 100 or 200 of these people for crimes of violence, easy," said Colonel Daniel, head of the criminal investigation bureau. He wonders why many of the people on the list are still walking the streets. "This contributes greatly to the violence in the city."

Though gun violence in Baltimore declined in 1994 from the previous year -- the first significant drop in nearly a decade -- shootings and homicides still plague some city neighborhoods.

The city set a record for homicides in 1993, when 353 people were slain; last year, the number dropped to 321. In the first 13 weeks of 1995, 74 people have been killed, up from 64 at the corresponding time last year. Handguns were used in 76 percent of last year's slayings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine J. Armentroup says prosecutors will pursue people with violent pasts, hoping for a gun charge that could put the person behind bars for years.

Prosecutors have even yanked cases -- such as Hawks' -- out of state court. Allan Howard Rombro, who represented Hawks at one time, said his former client was prevailing in his state court case when the federal authorities took over.

Hawks' latest arrest came in January 1994 after a sweep through an open-air drug market at Abington and West Baltimore streets. He was charged with a variety of state drug and gun offenses.

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