Reassuring fliers

Officers let communities know when criminals are put behind bars

September 14, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Think about it as a wanted poster in reverse.

The orange fliers handed out by five city police officers in upper Fells Point yesterday featured a mug shot of Charles Garrison. The number for a tip line was listed at the bottom.

But this notice wanted nothing.

Instead it provided an unusual update: Local and federal authorities wanted to let the Southeastern Baltimore community know that Garrison, a repeat offender and admitted murderer, had been sentenced to 22 1/2 years in federal prison for gun possession.

"Sure, why not? It's a good idea. We need to know," said Rosemarie Harrison as she accepted a flier while sitting on a bench outside her Gough Street home. The 68-year-old laundromat employee lives near the Broadway address Garrison once called home, and she said she recognized his face.

The flier distribution, which started yesterday and continues today in three other communities, is the latest public relations component of the Maryland Exile campaign. The local-federal partnership announced this year seeks to use strict gun laws to lock up criminals who might have skated through the state criminal justice system too easily in the past.

"We want to let the good people know that this kind of defendant, he's no longer going to be in your community again," said Marcus Brown, deputy police commissioner. "The overarching message to the good people is crime in Baltimore is better."

The other message, Brown said, is a warning.

"We also want to let all of the criminals know that `Look, there is your buddy. He was standing on the corner next to you, and you're never going to see him again. And he's far away.'"

Federal prosecutors said even those who remain in the state system often plead guilty because they fear prosecution in U.S. District Court, where sentencing guidelines are harsh for gun crimes.

"Often we're in a situation where someone comes into federal court with several prior felonies and they're shocked to hear what kind of sentence they should receive under the guidelines," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said. "It's our goal now to communicate that possibility to people before they commit crimes."

From January through July of this year, federal prosecutors sent so-called flip letters to 24 defendants with cases in state court. The letters warned that if the defendants did not agree to a five-year mandatory prison sentence for a gun charge in state court, they would be prosecuted in federal court, where the penalties were likely to be more severe.

Eighteen defendants agreed to state pleas. According to recent statistics compiled by the state's attorney's office, four of 26 defendants convicted of gun charges in state court in Baltimore received prison sentences of 10 years or more.

Those cases reflect a small fraction of the total number of gun crimes brought to court by local prosecutors. The Baltimore state's attorney reported that 162 people were charged as felons in possession of a firearm in the first six months of this year. During that same period, federal prosecutors based in Baltimore indicted 65 defendants on similar charges.

The U.S. attorney's office estimates that the number of cases this year is almost 50 percent greater than the number prosecuted by federal officials last year.

Garrison, 36, pleaded guilty in December 2004 in federal court to drug conspiracy and using a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime. Court papers show Garrison helped sell cocaine and heroin in and around the first block of S. Broadway.

In a raid April 30, 2004, officers recovered drugs and firearms, including a Glock 20, a 12-gauge shotgun and a high-powered rifle.

As part of his plea agreement in federal court, Garrison acknowledged shooting James McNeely, who died March 7, 2004. McNeely was a former member of the drug gang, prosecutors said.

Garrison also pleaded guilty to the murder in state court and is awaiting sentencing.

The officers who handed out dozens of Garrison posters yesterday knew few details of the case. One officer told residents that Garrison was in a federal prison in Kansas. None knew he had been convicted of murder.

His attorney said in an interview that Garrison was being held in Youngstown, Ohio. A Web site for the Bureau of Prisons lists him as being held in a federal facility east of Scranton, Pa.

Wherever Garrison is, his attorney said police were showcasing an essentially hapless man with a misleading picture.

"It doesn't even look like him. He had thick glasses," attorney Dennis Laye said, adding that Garrison was not the city's "worst of the worst."

Garrison, he said, "basically went into the neighborhood business, drugs, because that's all he was qualified to do. His first couple of brushes with the law, he got probation."

When subsequent offenses led to probation violations, Garrison spent time in jail, his attorney said.

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