Why was man accused of shooting city officer out of jail?

Officials say man arrested in weekend shooting highlights need to tighten sentencing laws

November 29, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

In 2008, Franklin Gross Sr. — the man accused of shooting a city police officer in the chest over the weekend — received a five-year prison sentence for a handgun conviction and 12 years for a separate armed robbery charge.

Yet Gross was out of prison, roaming downtown Baltimore early Saturday.

First, his sentences were backdated to May 28, 2006, to account for the time he spent in jail after he was first picked up on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Next, as part of his plea agreement, half of his 12-year sentence was suspended.

With the plea agreement, Gross was looking at a six-year sentence, with two years shaved off because he had already spent that time in jail.

Another two years came off through diminution — or "good time" — credits. In May, he was freed on mandatory release, 26 months after being sentenced.

The new charges against Gross filed this weekend in the shooting of Officer Todd Strohman mark the fifth time the 29-year-old has been charged with gun-related crimes, highlighting the continuing challenges that law enforcement authorities say they face in keeping gun offenders off the streets.

For years, officials have been trying to tighten state laws that they say allow "good time for gun crime," arguing for "truth in sentencing." Prisoners serving sentences for nonviolent crimes can earn up to 10 days off their sentences each month, while violent offenders can earn five days a month, which proponents say is an incentive for inmates to behave and rehabilitate themselves through various programs.

A 2009 bill — backed by Baltimore's mayor, state's attorney and police commissioner — which would have curbed the number of credits accrued by gun offenders, sailed through the House of Delegates but stalled in the state Senate, suffering a fate similar to other gun-related efforts.

"It was not just the state's attorney or the police commissioner, but community groups that saw people get locked up who were supposedly getting a five-year mandatory sentence and then they're out in two years," said Del. Curt Anderson, who sponsored the House bill.

Anderson said the proposals were straightforward. Advocates were "not trying to pass all these news laws. They're saying, 'Make this one more effective by keeping these folks in jail.'"

Aides to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake say that in the next legislative session, she will continue to lobby for stiffening penalties for gun offenders. She won't try to tackle the thorny issue of "good time" credits, but instead seek to increase the penalties for felons found in possession of handguns to 15 years.

The aides said they believe presenting broader options might be more palatable to judges and legislators who have opposed such bills in the past, and they plan to mount a grass-roots effort to build support for that bill and another similar proposal.

"The mayor's focus is on changing this culture where it's acceptable to walk around the streets of Baltimore with a loaded firearm," said Rawlings-Blake's spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. "The two bills she's pursuing in this legislative session are aimed at changing that culture."

Gross was charged with shooting Strohman, a patrol officer who has been with the department for a year. Officers saw Gross walking awkwardly early Saturday at North Calvert and East Baltimore streets and suspected he was armed. Strohman was shot in the upper chest when he approached.

Three officers who were assigned to the SWAT team and were in the area returned fire, striking and injuring Gross with a barrage of bullets. Those officers were identified Monday as Lt. Scott Mezan, a 17-year veteran; Officer Jeffrey Schmitt, a 13-year veteran; and Officer Irving Hinkson, also a 13-year veteran.

Police had described this weekend's incident as a "running gun battle" through a busy area that includes nightclubs and a hospital. A car that Gross had been riding in crashed at Calvert and Franklin streets — it had at least 13 bullet holes.

On Monday, police sought to ease concerns that others were put at risk by the three officers' decision to fire at the vehicle. Anthony Guglielmi, the department's chief spokesman, said a review of city surveillance cameras showed that there were no bystanders in the area when the shootings took place.

"There was never any risk to public safety," Guglielmi said. "Their judgment of taking that level of force wouldn't have put anybody [else] in danger."

Strohman is the fourth city police officer shot and wounded this year. Meanwhile, city police have shot 10 people, killing two — the lowest totals in recent memory. In 2007, city police shot 33 people, 13 of whom died; and 22 were shot last year, with eight fatally injured.

Gross, who police say was picked up by a good Samaritan and taken to Mercy Medical Center after his vehicle crashed, was in Maryland Shock Trauma Center recovering from his injuries.

In prison and after being released, Gross had maintained a clean record, according to Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He was placed in the state's high-level Violent Prevention Initiative for supervision of violent repeat offenders and had only an early failed urinalysis.

"He was doing what he was supposed to be doing," Binetti said. "He just made a really bad decision [Friday] night."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com



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