Federal prosecutor might lose city help

Jessamy threatens to recall lawyer U.S. attorney uses in firearms cases

$200,000 funding proposal sparks letter

September 13, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore state's attorney is threatening to recall a city prosecutor assigned to the U.S. attorney's office because the city plans to give $200,000 directly to federal prosecutors to go after criminals who use firearms to commit crimes.

In a letter dated Friday, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy questioned why the city planned to bypass her office to give the federal funds to the state's top federal prosecutor. The money would be used to hire two new prosecutors and a paralegal. Jessamy's letter was directed to police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler and Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein.

"The State's Attorney's Office has consistently prosecuted firearms violations and prosecutes the vast majority of crime occurring in the City of Baltimore," Jessamy wrote. "The fact that this office was not included in these discussions is of serious concern to me and should be of concern to the citizens of Baltimore City."

Jessamy's vocal resistance brings to a boil the long-simmering dispute among city, state and federal officials on how best to reduce the amount of gun-related crime in a city that has averaged more than 250 homicides a year since 2000.

Jessamy declined to be interviewed about the letter yesterday but her spokeswoman said her office still has "an expectation that a collaborative partnership will continue" with the U.S. attorney's office.

Last week, Rosenstein had privately suggested to the mayor's office that it funnel the money through Jessamy's office, but the compromise was rejected.

In a letter to Jessamy yesterday, Rosenstein said, "No one suggested any change in the critical role of the State's Attorney."

He called the assistant state's attorney assigned to his office "extraordinarily productive, but he only prosecutes a small fraction of the federal firearms cases arising in Baltimore City." Other response to Jessamy's letter was muted yesterday.

Through a spokesman, Hamm said he would have no comment because "issues like these should not be resolved through the media."

A spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley did not return a call seeking comment.

Jessamy referred to herself in the letter as the city's "lone voice" to make gun prosecutions a priority. She intimated that the mayor's plan with federal prosecutors was an "initiative designed only for political purposes."

In the past, O'Malley administration officials have argued that gun prosecutions in Maryland have fallen behind those of Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., and Northern Virginia.

Rosenstein countered that the pace of gun prosecutions from his office has been increasing and he believes his office will prosecute more of them this year than last. According to his office, federal prosecutors in Maryland gained indictments in 363 firearms cases last year, 252 of which were in the state's northern division, mostly Baltimore City.

In her letter, Jessamy noted her office's statistics, trying to show that federal prosecutors accept a fraction of cases recommended by local prosecutors for action in federal court.

Last year, Jessamy's Firearms Investigations and Violence Enforcement division asked the U.S. attorney's office to take more than 204 cases generated by local officials. Federal prosecutors "tentatively" accepted 129 of those cases, according to Jessamy. The process often takes months before federal officials make up their minds, she wrote.

In the end, she wrote, federal prosecutors obtained only 47 indictments, dumping many of the leftover cases on local prosecutors.

She worried about what will happen when two federal prosecutors without a connection to her office decide not to pursue a particular gun case.

"Is the defendant released without charges or is the expectation that the local prosecutors pick up the pieces and proceed after the case has been further hampered by the passage of time?" she asked in her letter.

If the deal between city and federal officials goes through, Jessamy said, she will expect federal officials to handle their local gun prosecutions from the moment of arrest. Rosenstein's office "must be able to indict within 30 days and cannot expect to return any case back to the State for prosecution," she wrote.

The issue over gun prosecutions re-emerged last month when O'Malley agreed to funnel $200,000 from a grant award to bolster Rosenstein's plans to pursue more gun prosecutions in Baltimore.

The money, which comes from what is left of a $2.1 million Justice Department grant awarded last year to the city, will establish two special prosecutors who will focus for one year on city gun crimes that violate federal firearms laws.

Since 2000, Jessamy has assigned one of her assistant prosecutors to aid federal officials with cases against convicted criminals who use guns in other offenses. The numbers no longer justify the appointment, she wrote last week.

"I will be moving Jim Wallner back to State prosecution, since the numbers we have indicate that two attorneys should be sufficient to prosecute all eligible cases that qualify under the federal statutes," Jessamy wrote.

Sun staff writers and Julie Bykowicz and Gus Sentementes contributed to this report.

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