Livid DiBiagio rejects critics on gun cases

10-year term announced for high-profile offender

Policy on U.S. charges defended

Office will `get bad guys,' not `rack up the numbers'

October 04, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio took on his critics headfirst yesterday, angrily rejecting suggestions that his office could do more to fight city gun violence and holding up as proof of its efforts a 10-year prison sentence for a young Baltimore man who had become a symbol of the city's violent, well-armed streets.

DiBiagio's remarks appeared to be aimed most directly at his own political benefactor and friend, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who heavily lobbied the White House to appoint DiBiagio last year but also has called for stepped-up federal gun prosecutions as he campaigns for governor.

"We're not bean counters here. We don't count numbers - we count the number of cases that make a difference in the community," DiBiagio said at a news conference scheduled to announce the 10-year, no-parole sentence handed down yesterday in the high-profile case against Eric D. Stennett.

Stennett, 19, was acquitted last year in the death of a city police officer after a trial in state court. In July, he pleaded guilty to unrelated gun and drug charges in a federal case that DiBiagio prosecuted himself.

"This is a case that made a difference in the community," DiBiagio said.

The prosecutor did not refer to Ehrlich or anyone else by name as he delivered an unexpected and sometimes prickly defense of his work to combat gun violence. Asked if his remarks were prompted by criticism of his office during last week's gubernatorial debate between Republican Ehrlich and Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, DiBiagio said he was not bothered by debate politics.

"What I'm bothered by is a 15-year friendship that has been put in jeopardy by comments that are baseless," DiBiagio said. He did not elaborate, telling reporters they could figure out what he meant.

Ehrlich declined to comment yesterday, other than to note that the two men - friends since they were both young lawyers in Baltimore - have not talked since DiBiagio was sworn into office.

Although the issue had quieted in recent months outside of the governor's race, DiBiagio has faced persistent criticism - most vocally from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - for his decision to pursue charges against felons caught illegally carrying guns only when defendants face a potentially longer sentence in federal court than they would in state court.

DiBiagio said that approach would mean fewer federal firearm cases, but he said his office would instead concentrate on convicting leaders of violent, well-orchestrated drug gangs and criminals caught carrying guns while committing other crimes, such as selling drugs or stealing cars.

The reduced focus on more routine "felon-in-possession" was a surprise because Ehrlich had repeatedly criticized the previous U.S. attorney, Lynne A. Battaglia, for not prosecuting more of those violations, and it was widely expected that her Ehrlich-backed successor would make the issue a priority.

DiBiagio acknowledged yesterday that when he took office some people had encouraged him to model his gun-crime policies on "Project Exile," a Richmond, Va., program where federal prosecutors began taking virtually all felon-in-possession cases in U.S. court.

But DiBiagio said he was convinced that Baltimore needed a more focused, complex approach: "Exile says do them all - indiscriminately, just rack up the numbers," DiBiagio said.

"What we're trying to do is really get the bad guys, the Eric Stennetts who are out there," he said.

The prosecutor then gave a detailed explanation of his policies on gun-crime prosecutions, at one point repeating himself after first saying: "Let me explain it again, because it's apparently very difficult for some people to understand."

DiBiagio noted that city prosecutors have sharply increased the number of gun cases they pursue in state court - in 2000, he said, only eight defendants were charged with firearm violations under new felon-in-possession laws; so far this year, 155 people have been charged.

He said federal prosecutors have increased the number of cases they pursue where firearm charges are paired with drug charges, a combination that typically means longer sentences. He said prosecutors pursued 25 such cases in 2001; that number has jumped to 39 this year.

DiBiagio said his approach should be called, "Exile Plus." And he pointed to the Stennett case as a clear example of how it works, pointedly noting that he took the case himself.

"Today, I did it myself ... I did it myself in spite of all the hours I have to spend answering all the baseless criticism about this office's commitment to gun violations," DiBiagio said. "I did it myself so Eric Stennett would never forget his day in federal court."

Stennett was acquitted in state court in January 2001 of murder charges stemming from an April 2000 police chase that killed Officer Kevon M. Gavin after a jury determined that police had mishandled much of the evidence in the case.

More than year after that verdict, Stennett was arrested after a foot chase with police through the McCulloh Homes public housing complex. Police said Stennett tossed a loaded handgun and plastic bags containing vials of crack cocaine and fake heroin, or "burn."

Stennett's attorneys argued, and they maintained yesterday, that he had been a victim of selective prosecution.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake rejected that argument early in the case. Yesterday she called the case, "an example of the excellent, ongoing cooperation between federal, state and local authorities."

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