Changing a culture of gun violence

No compromise: Unbending enforcement makes criminals less likely to carry guns and kill.

Getting Away With Murder

February 08, 2000

IN RICHMOND, Va., where zero tolerance and Project Exile make justice unforgiving, Joseph Quarles drew five years in prison last week for public urination. More or less.

Quarles stepped out of a car last August to relieve himself on a city street. When police arrested him they found a .22 caliber Jennings pistol and heroin residue on a dollar bill.

As any lawyer or professional drug dealer in Virginia's capital can tell you, the gun on this 19-year-old father of two (with another on the way) meant -- if the possession and "carrying" charges stuck -- the judge would give him five years automatically. That's the law in Virginia.

Maryland's law against possession of handguns could be equally tough -- and should be. Project Exile has shown that tough enforcement can cut deeply into the murder rate without demonstrably trampling on the Constitution.

The Quarles case suggests to some that Exile draws the net of enforcement too tightly. More flexibility is needed to create a truly just system of punishment, according to this view.

For the criminal justice establishment of Virginia, though, the offense promised another opportunity for a city to show its determination to get rid of gun violence.

Baltimore surely faces similarly challenging circumstances. The murder rate has exceeded 300 a year for 10 years. Innocent bystanders -- often children -- have been wounded and killed. Young men who might make different choices turn to guns because they feel they must protect themselves -- or because guns are a tool of the drug trade.

In Richmond, the U.S. Attorney decided to shock the city out of its helplessness. Though judges were skeptical, police and local prosecutors willingly joined in the Exile army.

Exile's aggressively unforgiving system snared Joseph Quarles at an awkward moment. But perhaps it saved his life and the lives of others. Similar saving arrests could be made in Baltimore -- if the state's attorney or the U.S. Attorney weren't so short on the will to make it happen.

Quarles and his family -- including one of his daughters in a bright pink knit hat -- pled for leniency at last week's sentencing. His mother said he was a good father. He said he was "doing the responsible thing in an irresponsible situation" -- holding the gun for a friend, keeping it from a really bad guy.

Often in these cases, the defendant stands alone. No family. No employer. Nothing but the sorry record leading to a long tour away from home turf.

Judge Thomas N. Nance waited for Quarles to finish.

Then he said, "The [Virginia] General Assembly has decided that most of the [crime] problems in this state are caused by guns and drugs." As a result, he said, it imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for possession of drugs and a gun. The assembly passed a statewide Exile program two years after the U.S. Attorney invoked it in Richmond.

The city's per-capita murder rate was then second highest in the nation.

Some 326 cases were brought under Exile in less than three years -- and Richmond's murder rate fell 40 percent.

"It was such a target-rich environment before," says the project's principal architect Jim Comey, an assistant U.S. Attorney and former federal prosecutor in New York under now-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "You could poke a stick on any street corner and find a felon with a gun. We had a public emergency here. Exile was like calling out the national guard."

va01 The case of Joseph "Baybay" Bullock shows how far out of control things had gotten on Richmond's streets. He shot two people to death on a street corner and, minutes later, came back to accept the accolades -- or exult in the fear -- he knew his deeds would engender.

Federal authorities held him without bail -- a prominent feature of Exile -- giving witnesses confidence they could testify against him. He was convicted and sentenced to three life terms and exiled to a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.

Despite the celebrated history of Baybay Bullock, Joseph Quarles told the judge he knew nothing of Project Exile. If this is so, he may be the last to learn in this city of 200,000.

The word is on the streets: Police hand out calling cards that say "An illegal gun gets you 5 years in federal prison." A series of TV advertisements -- done without sound because drug dens are so noisy that silence alone grabs attention -- make the point starkly.

Project Exile "has scared the crap out of a lot of people," says David Baugh, a former federal prosecutor who is now a defense attorney in Richmond. Exile has helped reduce the crime rate, he acknowledges.

But at what cost?

Mr. Baugh worries that juries will begin to nullify the law by acquitting defendants who are clearly guilty and that the nullification impulse will arise in other cases.

He says Exile lands most heavily on African-American defendants and the record shows that this is so.

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