Targeting violent offenders

March 27, 2007

Gun violence remains a pernicious, corrosive influence in the life of this city. And we're not just talking about Baltimore's steady run of murders, which are outpacing last year's total. Shootings also are on a steady incline across the city. Certainly, taking guns off the street helps, but it can't be the mainstay of a crime-reduction strategy. The harsh truth is that illegal guns pass through too many hands too quickly.

More critical is identifying repeat violent offenders and locking them up. In the city, that can prove troublesome. State judges have to take gun crimes more seriously, and police and prosecutors have to put forth compelling cases that bring results.

Take the case of Maurice Mouzon, a convicted drug dealer who also had been found guilty of weapons charges. He picked up his fourth drug conviction last year, and despite a pending violation of probation, a Baltimore judge sentenced him to 12 years and then suspended all of it. It took federal and city law enforcement targeting him as a violent repeat offender to get him off the street. Caught in his house with drugs, cash and a gun, he pleaded guilty to federal charges and faces a 21-year sentence without parole in May.

He was one of 18 violent repeat offenders detained or charged under Project Exile, a partnership between federal and local authorities to combat Baltimore's gun violence.

In part, Mr. Mouzon's fate has to do with a key difference of the federal system: A defendant's prior felony convictions for drug and violent offenses can enhance his sentence.

That's not always the case in state court. Despite the benefits of prosecuting gun violence cases in federal court, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein can take only so many of them. His prosecutors went after 37 percent more gun cases in 2006 than in the previous year. But the fact remains: The majority of gun violence cases are the purview of Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and her prosecutors.

City prosecutors won guilty verdicts in more than a third of the 711 gun crime cases handled last year, but the office had to drop almost as many for poor evidence, faulty witnesses or cops not showing up. Trying a gun case before a jury or a judge resulted in more not-guilty verdicts than convictions last year.

Of the 283 defendants convicted of gun crimes, city prosecutors won five-year mandatory sentences in at least 147 cases, about the same rate as 2005.

These are small victories in a very long war that shows little sign of abating and requires consistent, coordinated law enforcement efforts to make even the slightest gains.

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