Court for gun offenses in session

City's latest tool in crackdown gets off to a quiet start

May 03, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's new "gun court," the latest tool to crack down on gun-toting criminals and rid the city's streets of weapons, got off to an inauspicious start yesterday.

The first trial ended in an acquittal on a gun charge. Four defendants had their cases postponed. Federal prosecutors took over one man's case. Another man asked to be tried later by a jury.

For Sylvester Cox, chief of the state's attorney's handgun unit, the court's anticlimatic opening was not a foreboding picture of the future. He said his unit will aggressively pursue all cases -- the tough ones and the slam-dunks.

"We prosecute the cases that are presented to us," Cox said outside the District Court on North Avenue after two men were acquitted on charges they transported a handgun in a recreational vehicle. "We let those chips fall where they may."

The day began with Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy heralding the opening of the court, which is scheduled to hear illegal-gun possession cases two afternoons a week in the city's District Court. Flanked by her top advisers, including Cox, Jessamy announced that the days of slap-on-the-wrist sentences for gun cases are over.

"What we're going to be saying consistently is that we have to stop doing what we've been doing," Jessamy said. "These cases should have our utmost priority."

The court will handle about 20 cases a week of first-time defendants charged with illegal gun possession, a misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for the crime is three years, and Jessamy said her prosecutors will seek jail time in most cases.

Part of the plan for targeting first-time gun defendants is to deter them from carrying a gun again and to send the message that violence will not be tolerated.

"The earlier we can become involved in sending a strong message, the better," Jessamy said. "We are sick and tired of the violence on our streets."

Jessamy is also strengthening how gun violence is prosecuted at the felony level. She hired several prosecutors after state officials gave her about $1 million in February to combat violent crime. The funds followed an investigation by The Sun documenting that most violent offenders in Baltimore receive little or no jail time.

All handgun cases will be centralized into Cox's unit, known as FIVE, for Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement.

Yesterday, Cox and other top prosecutors in the FIVE unit watched the first trial in gun court. The court's first defendants were hardly the city street thugs envisioned by prosecutors as targets of the crackdown.

They were computer technicians from Florida who were arrested with a gun and a bag of marijuana on Interstate 895 when they got lost and asked transportation police for directions back to Interstate 95.

Karl Allison, 21, and Scott Cornell, 24, argued that they did not know the gun was in the recreational vehicle. The vehicle was owned by their boss in Florida who had sent them on a 13-day trip to assignments along the East Coast.

Cornell told District Judge Kathleen M. Sweeney that he had driven to Texas with their boss, who carried the gun in the vehicle. Cornell said he did not know the gun was there when the he and Allison left on this trip in March.

Sweeney found them not guilty, ruling that evidence must show that offenders knew they were unlawfully transporting a gun.

"I am in real quandary," Sweeney said. "I don't believe they knew about [the gun] when they left Florida."

She then found Allison guilty of possession of marijuana and paraphernalia used to smoke it. She sentenced him to 120 days behind bars. He left the court in handcuffs.

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