Handgun used in fatal shooting slipped by police

Background checks not completed for 11 awaiting trial

Slaying in Prince George's

June 02, 1999|By Devon Spurgeon and Matthew Mosk | Devon Spurgeon and Matthew Mosk,SUN STAFF

One of the guns that state police missed when the department fell months behind on criminal background checks was used in a fatal shooting in Prince George's County, the department acknowledged yesterday.

The sale of that handgun to a Baltimore woman awaiting trial on felony charges was one of dozens the state police failed to catch when the agency built up a backlog of 1,500 requests to screen gun buyers earlier this year.

In those cases, the seven-day waiting period passed without a police-issued "hold order," so merchants were free to turn the guns over to buyers, whether or not background checks were complete. In early March, troopers fanned out across the state to confiscate 54 guns that slipped into the hands of felons, psychiatric patients, and others who should have failed background checks.

But a report of state police gun checks released yesterday counted an additional 11 people awaiting trial for theft, assault and drug felonies who bought guns during the five months when the department was behind.

Among them is Sirena Catura Whittington, 26, who now is charged with her husband's murder. She is being held without bail in the Prince George's County Detention Center.

That case has unnerved officials already questioning the state police's ability to adequately monitor gun sales.

"What we're learning is that background check systems are not perfect methods of keeping guns from criminals," said Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, the Montgomery County Democrat who discovered the state police backlog in an obscure budget notation.

"Bottom line is, some criminals are going to slip through the cracks," Kagan said.

Col. David B. Mitchell, superintendent of the state police, acknowledged in an interview that the weapons sold to 11 customers "should have been placed on hold due to the pending criminal charges."

In the report -- which police had to complete before receiving $1 million in state funding -- Mitchell described a plan to prevent the system from breaking down again.

"By strengthening our policy we will be better able to prevent tragedies like the one that occurred in Prince George's County," he wrote in a letter that accompanied the report yesterday.

That sale placed a handgun in Whittington's hands as she awaited trial on a charge of felony theft. On her application, state police said, Whittington wrote that she was buying the gun for "personal protection."

Mitchell said that under normal circumstances, Whittington's application would have been put on hold. But once the gun was released to her, it could not be recalled because she has not been convicted.

"She had no history of violence that we were aware of," Mitchell said. "We will now under all circumstances put applications on hold when someone is being charged with a felony."

He said that state police are also monitoring the cases of 10 other individuals who were able to purchase weapons before their trials.

Applicants for handguns fail the background checks if they are felons, drug addicts, or under age 21. Those convicted of a domestic violence charge and some misdemeanors, or who have a history of mental illness also are rejected.

In March, after legislators noticed the backlog problem during budget reviews, police departments around the state were notified about the guns that had been given out without completed checks.

The state police charged 27 people with filing a false application and perjury for taking advantage of delays in criminal background checks to purchase weapons. Among them are a man convicted of attempted rape, a man charged with assault with intent to maim, a drug dealer and six drug users, state police said. Two people with outstanding arrest warrants also purchased handguns.

Troopers said they became overwhelmed when a federal system of instant background checks for sales of rifles and shotguns was instituted in December. At that time, the agency was also updating its computer systems.

Mitchell reassigned three officers from the division in charge of background checks and revised policies to speed up application processing.

He said the department has encouraged gun dealers to fax forms to police instead of mailing them.

It has also eliminated confusion about when the application period begins, decreeing that the process begins when the application is faxed or mailed, not when it is filled out.

In the report, Mitchell said the department will receive help from a Virginia-based nonprofit group, MitreTek Systems, in devising better procedures.

He said the department's turn-around time for applications is two days.

Capt. Greg Shipley, spokesman for the state police, said that since the beginning of the year, the agency has placed 2,100 holds on weapons. For all of last year, it placed 2,200 holds.

"There is strict accountability on a daily basis," said Shipley. "We are committed to not have a situation like we had back in the winter."

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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