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Baltimore law enforcement beefs up effort to bring gun cases to federal court, where punishment is harsher

With younger and younger people carrying guns on the streets of Baltimore, law enforcement officials are scaling up a longstanding program to prosecute gun crimes in federal court where the penalties are stiffer.

Baltimore’s top law enforcement officials gathered Wednesday to announce that three more special prosecutors will bolster the ranks of Project Exile. The local effort, part of a national program, represents a partnership of the U.S. attorney’s office, federal agents, Baltimore police, prosecutors and Maryland’s attorney general to steer gun cases from state to federal court.

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Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s office funded four special assistant U.S. attorneys beginning last year to take gun cases to federal court. There’s no parole in the federal court system, and a conviction typically brings a longer prison term, say, 8, 10 or 15 years.

With three more special prosecutors, the unit grows to seven people. Officials call it a “force multiplier.”

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Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner, center, speaks during a news conference May 26, 2021, in Baltimore as Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, left, and city Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listen.
Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan Lenzner, center, speaks during a news conference May 26, 2021, in Baltimore as Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, left, and city Police Commissioner Michael Harrison listen. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“All of us standing here today find the levels of gun violence totally unacceptable,” said Jonathan Lenzner, the acting U.S. attorney for Maryland.

Hogan’s office increased funding from about $630,000 to $880,000 for the three additional special prosecutors, a spokeswoman said. In a statement, the governor said those criminals who do the shooting in Baltimore must be put behind bars “to serve real time.”

“This is an important step, and we are committed to doing everything we can to address the violent crime crisis in our largest city,” he said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore charged 73 gun possession cases in federal court last year, Lenzner said. As of April 30, the office has charged 11 gun cases in federal court this year. The federal grand jury met periodically last year, but did not do so in early 2021 because of the coronavirus.

In some of the gun cases, defendants are as young as the early 20s.

“The defendants today seem to be younger, unfortunately,” Lenzner said. “That’s obviously distressing to all of us.”

The press conference also brought the uncommon sight of Lenzner and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby side by side before news cameras. The U.S. attorney’s office has opened a criminal tax investigation into Mosby and her husband, Democratic City Council President Nick Mosby.

The investigation was revealed in March in a grand jury subpoena obtained by The Baltimore Sun. Prosecutors have not commented. Marilyn Mosby, also a Democrat, has said only that she believes she’s being scrutinized for her progressive politics.

A U.S. attorney’s office spokeswoman told reporters Wednesday if they asked about anything other than violent crime, the news conference would end immediately.

Guns continue to pour into Baltimore from border states and the Interstate 95 corridor, said Tim Jones, the special agent in charge of Baltimore for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Officials consider whether a gun was fired in a previous crime, used in gang shooting, or carried by someone with a history of violence when deciding whether to try a defendant in federal court.

“The decision to pull the trigger is not made when the trigger is pulled,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said. “The decision to pull the trigger is made when the person walks out of the house carrying a gun.”

Mosby drew a distinction from her policy to cease prosecuting nonviolent drug crimes. The state’s attorney said she’s not backing off gun cases and that the prevalence of guns in the streets fuels violence.

Baltimore officials continue to try and rein in the gun violence that has run rampant in the city in recent years. According to police statistics, 126 people have been killed so far this year, a 5% increase over last year. The city has recorded 255 nonfatal shootings this year, nearly a 20% increase.

The city has suffered more than 300 killings in each of the last six years. Violence peaked in 2019 with 348 homicides, second only to 1993, when the city had nearly 125,000 more residents.

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