'Project Exile' gets tough on gun crime

Federal-local effort deals long sentences served far away

June 06, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

To Mozetta Smith, the mug shot on the orange flier that police handed out looked familiar.

Still, after scouring her memory, Smith could not quite remember where she had seen convicted felon Collin Hawkins - but for sure, she was pleased he was off the street.

Hawkins, 26, is a drug dealer and carjacker who was acquitted last month in the attempted murder of an off-duty city police officer. But Hawkins was also sentenced recently to 30 years in federal prison for a handgun violation - a conviction local and federal authorities held up as a success story in a two-year-old partnership.

Wearing T-shirts bearing the words "Project Exile," city police officers joined representatives from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at The Alameda shopping center to trumpet the sentencing of a criminal who, they said, had dealt drugs on the neighborhood's streets.

"I don't know him," said Smith, who had just finished buying groceries at a store when police approached her. "But I recognize him. And I'm glad he's captured."

The local-federal partnership uses strict federal gun laws to lock up criminals who might have skated through the state criminal justice system. Law enforcement officials have praised the program, highlighting several cases over the past two years in which criminals have received long sentences for gun violations.

Yesterday, a U.S. district judge sentenced Jake Antonio Keels, 41, to nearly 12 years in prison for illegally possessing a firearm and ammunition after a previous felony conviction, federal prosecutors said.

According to the guilty plea, city police detectives executed a search warrant at Keels' residence in February 2007 and recovered a semiautomatic pistol loaded with six rounds of ammunition in the living room he used as a makeshift bedroom.

From January though June this year, federal prosecutors have won similar convictions of 20 Baltimore defendants, with sentences ranging from seven years to 30 years, according to city police spokesman Donny Moses.

Lt. Col Rick Hite, of the city department's Community Mediation Program, said one of the program's goals is to deter crime through stiff federal penalties that offer no chance of parole. Hite said many of the convicts are sent to faraway places, including Indiana, making visitation difficult.

"We're hoping that we'll send a message to those who have been convicted, to send a message to their friends inside the institutions, who will send a message to those in the street that we're serious about this," Hite said.

While many of the shoppers police spoke with yesterday praised the program, Anitra Jones of West Baltimore had her reservations. Jones was one of the first to receive a flier, which she glanced at before firing questions at police.

Jones said she has a son who has been in jail for 11 years. She wonders about rehabilitation for defendants serving such lengthy sentences far from home.

"They're talking about just throwing them behind bars without giving them a second chance in life," she said. "They need a better solution besides shipping them from their hometown and away from their families."

Cedric Hammond of East Baltimore said a 30-year sentence is harsh for a gun violation, but added, "You got to know the risk you take. It doesn't matter if it's fair or not."


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