Tough gun law, timid enforcement

Courts: Nearly three decades after Maryland set strict penalties for gun crimes, the law has had little impact in Baltimore. Three out of four people charged with handgun violence serve less than the mandatory five years.

January 30, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The case against Donnell Harris seemed rock-solid: When Baltimore prosecutors charged Harris with carjacking two men and shooting one of them, they were armed with a confession from his accomplice, testimony from the two victims and a cache of .38-caliber bullets found at Harris' house.

But when Harris pleaded guilty, he was sentenced only to inpatient alcohol treatment, where he stayed a month.

Days later, Harris and another man shot and killed a teen-ager and stuffed the body in the trunk of a car.

Like most gun-wielding criminals in Baltimore, Harris did not receive the mandatory five-year, no-parole sentence required by state law for those who use a gun to carry out their crimes.

In this city, where 300 or more people have been murdered every year for the past decade, the tough gun law that was designed to help stop shootings and murders is virtually ignored.

An analysis by The Sun of nearly 3,000 court records and interviews with criminologists, defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges reveals that less than one in four people charged with gun crimes will get the required five-year prison sentence.

The law was passed in 1972 after then-Gov. Marvin Mandel became alarmed by shootings in city schools. One student was killed. Searches by police turned up more than 125 handguns in student hands.

The law was designed specifically to eradicate gun violence by setting up mandatory penalties for violent offenders.

During a two-year period ending last year, 1,660 people were hauled into Baltimore's Circuit Court to face the strict handgun charges for hundreds of armed robberies, attempted murders, carjackings and homicides. In each case, the defendants, by law, faced prison terms of at least five years.

The Sun's analysis shows what happened instead. Between Jan. 1, 1997, and March 31, 1999:

Eighty percent of the tough gun charges were dropped or placed in the inactive file by prosecutors, many times in an effort to win guilty pleas on the companion -- often lesser -- charges.

Of the 1,000 people convicted on those related gun charges, more than half did not go to prison for five years, the minimum sentence they should have received under the state's 1972 gun law.

Scores of defendants were released after pleading guilty, sentenced to the amount of time they had already spent in jail awaiting trial.

One-third of those charged with using guns on city streets -- about 530 people -- were freed without a trial even though a city grand jury or prosecutors found there was probable cause to believe that they had committed the crimes.

Light sentences and abandoned cases, analysts say, have likely contributed to the city's persistently high rate of shootings and homicides.

The city's violent street culture "is way worse than being in the infantry in Vietnam," says Harvard criminologist David Kennedy. "When we're dealing with chronic offending groups who have been arrested 10 times, you've got to use authority. You can't counsel people out of this."

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy gives two reasons why the gun law has rarely been enforced here: To take all such cases to trial would overwhelm an already clogged system. And, she says, reluctant or recanting witnesses handicap many cases.

"The vast majority of our shooting cases involve one bad boy shooting another," Jessamy says. "The culture [is] built on street vengeance and retaliation, and not giving assistance and support and testimony to police and prosecutors.

"There are some innocent victims, but they are not the vast majority not by any stretch of the imagination."

In Kennedy's 18-month analysis of the city's murder culture, he found evidence that supports Jessamy's view. His study showed that the city's violent crime is concentrated among a relatively small number of people. Each murder suspect had been arrested more than nine times, and each victim had been arrested more than eight times. Sixty percent of the slayings involved people tied to the drug trade.

But many familiar with the legal system say Jessamy's "bad boy" reasoning does not excuse the scattershot prosecution of gun violence by her office and by her predecessors, which, they say, has helped turn parts of this city into urban war zones.

While Jessamy says her office is targeting the city's most violent criminals, hundreds more continue to slide through the system.

Warren A. Brown, one of the city's most active defense attorneys, said in a recent interview that he was so troubled by the light sentences his clients were getting that he approached prosecutors last spring to warn them.

"There is a mentality out there [on the streets] that is created by the way these cases are meted out that says, `It ain't all that bad,' " Brown says.

"As a professional defense attorney, I am going to keep trying to get these deals for my clients. As a resident of this city, it's frightening. "It sends a bad message out there that we are not taking guns seriously."

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