Project Exile gets approval from DiBiagio

City, Prince George's Co., to be first to use program for firearms-related cases

Convicts sent to federal prison

Ehrlich says move creates link to gun-crime strategy

February 25, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has agreed to launch a Virginia-style Project Exile gun prosecution program in Baltimore and Prince George's County, helping fulfill a key campaign promise made by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

After resisting such a move for a year, DiBiagio informed the state's attorneys in two jurisdictions by letter this month that Project Exile would now be implemented in Maryland.

Praised in Virginia for removing criminals from the streets, the program targets gun-possession cases. When convicted, criminals are sent to federal prison, which is frequently far from their home neighborhoods.

"Baltimore City and Prince George's County are two of the most violent jurisdictions in the country, with a murder rate more than 50 times higher than the average murder rate of other Maryland counties," DiBiagio said in a prepared statement provided by his office yesterday. "We are constantly reviewing our federal firearm prosecution efforts to [ensure] that we maintain the most aggressive prosecution effort possible."

Ehrlich, who nominated DiBiagio for his post but whose relations with the prosecutor became strained, said the U.S. attorney's decision creates another link in the gun-crime strategy he has made one of his legislative priorities this year.

"This is multi-tiered," Ehrlich said. "This is one part."

DiBiagio has long sought to maintain his independence from state politicians who have called for a greater federal role in prosecuting gun crimes. While Ehrlich and DiBiagio say they have not spoken since the prosecutor's confirmation in September 2001, discussions with DiBiagio on shared strategies were started by Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's legal counsel and a former U.S. attorney in the mid-1970s.

"We've been communicating back and forth," Ehrlich said.

Added Finney: "The governor is very appreciative of this advance in criminal justice."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, welcomed the announcement because the program would free city prosecutors to focus on other crimes, reducing their caseload.

"This is a significant boost to the city for resources for gun prosecution efforts," Burns said.

But she said the move was less notable than other cooperative efforts between city and state prosecutors, who she said are working closely together to target more complex cases.

She said federal prosecutors are handling many cases where guns are fired during a crime. There are twice as many of those as gun possession cases, Burns said.

Under the new program, the U.S. attorney's office will accept certain gun possession cases from local prosecutors. In the past, DiBiagio had resisted blanket acceptance, in part because a state law passed in 2000 set a five-year minimum sentence in such cases, which can be a longer sentence than a federal court would impose.

But Finney called the current state law "grossly insufficient," because it eliminates plea bargains.

In his letter to state prosecutors, DiBiagio placed some conditions on the cases he would take.

"We will accept for federal prosecution under 18 USC Sec. 922 G any felon in possession case where the evidence is strong enough to support a successful prosecution and the defendant has a single prior violent felony or drug offense conviction," the letter said.

In Baltimore, law enforcement experts say, the quality of evidence often poses a problem.

Vickie LeDuc, a spokeswoman for DiBiagio, said the U.S. attorney's office is able to handle more gun cases because two new prosecutors were hired late last year.

LeDuc noted that DiBiagio's office is spending more than a third of its resources on gun prosecutions, even without Project Exile in place. Previously, though, the office would accept cases only when the federal sentence would exceed the state punishment.

"A lot of people have clamored and thought that Baltimore City has needed this," she said.

Despite DiBiagio's decision, Ehrlich will still push ahead with an administration bill to add other elements to his Project Exile gun program. Legislative authority is needed, for example, to collect private-sector money to promote and advertise the state's get-tough policies.

"After session, we'll get the community part," Ehrlich said. "I've already been approached by business leaders in Baltimore who want to help out."

Sun staff writer Gail Gibson contributed to this article.

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