WASHINGTON – Baltimore City and Prince George’s County prosecutors welcomed news that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will take gun cases from those jurisdictions and try them in federal court.
In letters to local prosecutors this month, U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio said his office would accept gun possession cases that have good chances of conviction against defendants who already have a violent felony or drug conviction.
Defendants convicted under the so-called Project Exile program would go to federal prison. The project only addresses gun possession cases, not cases in which a gun was used.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy said her office is happy for help from the feds.
“When we have firearms prosecutors who have caseloads of 40 to 60 cases each, any number of cases that we can get handled by other prosecutors is a great help,” said Jessamy.
And putting together gun cases is a difficult, intensive process, said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy. Those cases can take up to 18 months to close, she said.
“We are closing cases from 2001 and 2002 now,” Burns said.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey will work closely with DiBiagio to implement the program, said Ivey spokesman Ramon Korionoff. The county gets so many gun cases that prosecutors sometimes have to cut a plea, even though they would rather prosecute, he said.
“Young people and gangs as well as other criminal elements are getting their hands on illegal guns,” Korionoff said.
Vickie LeDuc, a spokeswoman for DiBiagio, said Project Exile was prompted in part by widespread gun violence in Baltimore and Prince George’s County. Those two jurisdictions “have a murder rate 50 times higher than the average in other Maryland counties,” she said.
Murder cases would not be eligible under Project Exile, only possession cases. Burns said there are only about half as many gun possession cases in the city as cases in which a gun was fired during a crime.
“These (Project Exile cases) are just bad guys with guns, not people charged with using guns,” Burns said.
The U.S. Attorney’s office used to leave most gun possession charges to the state, partly because Maryland has a five-year minimum sentence for a felon caught with a gun. In federal court, judges can give lesser penalties.
“But there’s been a lot of requests for help in this area,” said LeDuc. “We’re trying to continue to work with the local and state law enforcement agencies.”
Prince George’s County prosecutors “will seek the most punitive” sentences when deciding whether to try a gun case on the state or federal level, Korionoff said. Additional charges and some case factors could still result in a harsher sentence from federal court than state court.
LeDuc said the hiring of two more prosecutors late last year gave the U.S. Attorney’s office the firepower it needs for Project Exile, which she called an “additional step in our aggressive firearms policy.”
Baltimore City, for one, primarily wants to get the criminals behind bars.
“We’re most appreciative of any assistance we can get,” Jessamy said. “There are no turf battles here.”