Abuse cases bring state, U.S. together

Some decry trend to `federalize' crimes that should be local

`Our goal is justice'

Federal role brings heavier sentences for domestic violence

May 31, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Stephen Bailey, chief of the family violence unit in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office, had a problem.

A woman had come forward to say that the gunshot wound that left her face half-paralyzed was not an accident, as she had originally told investigators. It was an attack by her boyfriend. But the woman balked at testifying, making chances of a conviction on state assault charges iffy at best.

But a review of court records revealed that at the time of the shooting, the boyfriend had been convicted on drug distribution charges. Bailey contacted the U.S. attorney's office for Maryland, which agreed to prosecute the boyfriend on a federal charge of illegal possession of firearms by a convicted felon -- an easier charge to prove and one punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Recently, the boyfriend, Stanley E. Smith, 27, who had pleaded guilty, was sentenced in federal court to 4 1/2 years in prison.

To prosecutors, the Smith case symbolizes the growing co-operation between state and local authorities in incidents involving domestic violence that they say is resulting in more convictions and stiffer penalties.

"It's a good example of how by working together we are able to salvage something significant in a case that was extremely difficult to prosecute," said Bailey.

Other kinds of cases, notably drug and gun violations, are increasingly likely to wind up in the federal system, where strict sentencing guidelines and the lack of parole make for stiffer prison terms.

Still, prosecutions on federal charges of individuals involved in domestic violence are particularly important, given the common aversion of many victims to appear in court and the reluctance of some local judges to take cases seriously, advocates say.

Those in the forefront of the fight against domestic violence applaud the trend.

"I'm delighted to hear it's being done," said Lisae Jordan, managing attorney for the House of Ruth, which serves battered women. "Having the federal government say `This is wrong.' says something about the seriousness of the issue."

But many defense attorneys decry the tendency. They say it is another example of the move to "federalize" crimes that are essentially local offenses -- a theme that was the subject last year of the year-end report on the judiciary by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

"There is a feeling that the federal government is reaching too far into what are traditionally state law enforcement cases," said Beth M. Farber, chief assistant federal public defender for Maryland, who represented Smith. "They're turning the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], FBI and ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] into local police forces."

Disconnected sentences

In domestic violence cases, judges take gun possession into account at sentencing, even if that crime was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, Farber said.

"There gets to be this large disconnect between what people are charged with and what they are sentenced for," she said. "Eventually, the gap becomes so wide, the system loses its credibility."

Defense attorney Daniel F. Goldstein, who represents a client prosecuted under a recent federal anti-stalking law as well as a state charge of reckless endangerment, agreed.

"Congress has made federal crimes of things based on how upset people are about things, not whether they should be subjects of federal law," he said.

But U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia and Assistant U.S. Attorney Bonnie S. Greenberg, who prosecute domestic cases, make no apologies.

Battaglia points out that the cases her office takes are not run-of-the-mill batterers, but people with prior convictions for serious crimes who are capable of committing violent crimes and are breaking federal law by having a gun.

"Any time we prosecute a recidivist felon who owns a firearm, we think we make Maryland safer," she said.

"We're not talking about people who punched somebody," she said. "We're talking about some of the worst offenders in society."

Some cases fail

Although prosecutors have compiled a strong record in federal court, they are not always successful.

Last month, a 25-year-old Baltimore man with a previous state handgun conviction was found not guilty of felony firearms possession. The man, who had a history of domestic violence, was accused of firing a pistol outside an apartment he shared with his girlfriend and threatening to kill her over an affair with another man.

"There was a question about whether it was his gun," said the man's attorney, assistant federal public defender Gary Christopher.

Local prosecutors say the very willingness of federal prosecutors to consider charges helps them in plea negotiations on state charges.

"We make it known that that's one of our options," said Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck of Baltimore.

Domestic violence cases that have led to convictions have resulted in some lengthy prison terms.

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