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Gun task force set up City state's attorney forms division aimed at gun crime, trade; Fewer plea bargains allowed; Most firearms cases are to be centralized, not handled piecemeal


Responding to growing public frustration with the violence in Baltimore, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy is stepping up efforts to get guns out of the hands of criminals and youths.

The city's chief prosecutor detailed plans yesterday to hire additional lawyers and staff to target the huge number of gun crimes in Baltimore.

A new 14-member division will concentrate on investigating and prosecuting gun cases, from routine arrests for illegal possession to the elaborate schemes of convicted felons who buy and rent guns.

"We've never really and truly followed the guns in any kind of comprehensive, strategic way," Jessamy said. "We're going to look at crimes involving handguns; we're going to look at shootings. We want to try to get a handle on where the guns are being purchased and where juveniles are getting guns."

Jessamy had wanted to create a separate gun division a year ago, but only recently won a federal grant to pay for it.

The money came at a fortuitous time. She, along with the mayor and police commissioner, have faced public outrage over the bloodshed in Baltimore since a 3-year-old boy was gunned down Jan. 3 in a barbershop.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has called for tougher prosecution, saying he wants the state's attorney to stop making deals on gun charges.

Jessamy says she has sharply curtailed the practice, but insists an absolute prohibition on plea bargains would never work.

Gun offenses have traditionally been handled by different city prosecutors, depending on the type of crime. For instance, one lawyer would handle the charges against a robber who held up a convenience store, while another would prosecute a drug dealer caught with a gun.

In the coming months, Jessamy said, she will be able to centralize the gun cases, especially those involving chronic criminals and teen-agers.

She received the blessing yesterday of the Board of Estimates, the city's financial oversight panel, to establish the gun unit with $645,000 from a $4.6 million federal grant the city obtained. The division will be made up of five prosecutors, five secretaries, a computer specialist and three paralegals who will work with victims and witnesses.

Another $120,000 from the grant, designed for urban programs to help juveniles and reduce crime, will be spent on her domestic violence group. Jessamy plans to add a prosecutor and two aides to that division.

"Violence in the home spills over into the streets," Jessamy told the five-member financial board.

The state's attorney's office employs about 150 prosecutors. There are specialized units for sex offenses, domestic violence, child abuse, narcotics and violent crimes. Most prosecute cases brought by the police, though some divisions do their own investigations, such as the economic crimes prosecutors who handle white-collar crimes.

The firearms unit will be directed to investigate patterns of gun crimes and to try to determine how guns are sold on the streets.

One goal is to target "straw purchases," where felons get around the law that prohibits them from buying guns by paying someone to make the purchase.

Prosecutors will work with state police to audit gun shops and determine whether any are selling firearms to convicted criminals. They also will question youths arrested with weapons to better understand how they got them.

Jessamy wants the unit to try to trace some of the handguns that are being rented out by enterprising criminals in the city. But she conceded tracking such gun rentals would be tough since they are used in multiple crimes.

Working at the District Court level, two of the paralegals will help the prosecutors get their cases ready and make sure both witnesses and victims show up to testify.

The computer analyst will track the cases and look for connections. As details on each gun violation and each confiscated weapon are added to the data base, Jessamy said, the city will develop a much clearer picture of the underground arsenal.

Taken together, the efforts will ease the burden on the prosecutors, who often are overwhelmed by "the sheer volume of the cases," Jessamy said. And if the initiative works as planned, the city would succeed in getting far more guns off the streets.

"That's our hope," Schmoke said. "At the time we applied for the grant, it was our belief that it would lead to a reduction in gun violence by helping us target current gun offenders for prosecution and enhanced sentencing."

Council President Lawrence A. Bell, who has pushed for a "zero tolerance" strategy in which police crack down on the most minor crimes, also applauded the effort.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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