As Baltimore police and prosecutors race to tamp down a sustained spike in violence, many of the charges against people caught with illegal guns aren't sticking, or defendants are only jailed for a fraction of their sentence.
About one-quarter of such gun cases are dropped before defendants go to trial, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis. Even when convicted of illegally possessing a firearm, prosecutors say, defendants are sentenced on average to 16 months in jail, with a substantial portion of their sentences suspended.
At the same time, police data show that fewer people arrested with illegal guns are ordered held without bail.
In one case, a 23-year-old man was granted bail after being arrested in the city with a fully loaded revolver and is now accused of fatally stabbing a man in Baltimore County five days after his release. The arrestee had a felony record and faced a mandatory five years in prison on the gun charge.
"There's no certainty of a consequence," Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said of the Baltimore justice system, adding that he believes carrying an illegal gun should be viewed as a "pre-murder" crime.
Daniel Webster, a Johns Hopkins University professor who studies gun crime and has been consulting with city leaders, says the criminal justice system has been re-examining sentencing and bails, and not everyone deserves lengthy prison time. At the same time, he said, research shows "focusing on gun offenders very consistently, when done well, correlates with fewer people getting shot."
The city is on track for more than 300 homicides this year, and last year's count reached a historic per-capita high. In Baltimore, one of every three people shot dies, making it one of the most lethal cities in America, a recent Sun investigation found.
To address the problems, Davis and State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced last month that they would launch a new unit to focus more closely on these gun crimes to ensure their cases are stronger and that they secure better convictions. This month, Mosby named a veteran homicide prosecutor to oversee the unit.
Some of the solutions lie in better cooperation between police and prosecutors, they acknowledge. Mosby noted in an interview that a large number of illegal gun cases are dropped because of technicalities and avoidable circumstances, including questions over the legality of stops and officers failing to appear in court.
Davis has expressed frustration that police efforts to stem gun violence are undercut when those accused of gun crimes aren't convicted or given stiff penalties. Mosby has said judges deserve scrutiny, too.
"At the end of the day, we don't impose sentences and don't implement bails," Mosby said. "We can make a recommendation. But it's not on us."
Circuit Judge Charles Peters, the judge in charge of criminal cases in Baltimore, and other judges declined to comment, said Terri Charles, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary.
Defense attorneys say police work can be shoddy. They point to weak cases in which prosecutors are forced to "step off" — by offering defendants deals to plead to lesser counts. In many of those cases, the defendants have been charged under a statute that would require a mandatory five years in prison without parole.
"There's serious questions about the way the search was conducted, or the strength of the evidence overall," said Stephen Beatty, a Baltimore defense attorney.
Beatty also said officers sometimes skirt constitutional and other guidelines in an effort to take guns off the street. "They're not getting the people a lot of the time because of the way they seized the guns," he said. "They're encouraged to go on their hunches, and do things they really shouldn't be doing."
Some defendants pick up new charges within weeks of the conclusion of their last criminal case.
In November 2015, Taiquan Moss and Kenneth Ballard were driving through West Baltimore when they were pulled over for having a license plate propped up in the window. Police said they saw Ballard make a movement toward the floor, and ordered the men out. Sticking out from under the passenger seat was a revolver, and both were charged with firearms offenses.
Except it was more complicated in court. Though neither man was holding the weapon, both were charged with possessing it. In court, their attorneys sought to suppress the gun as evidence, arguing police had no grounds to remove the men from the vehicle.
Detective Jeffrey Lilly testified that he made eye contact with Ballard — whose name he could not recall — and saw him move his shoulders downward. Both, he said, were cause to suspect something illegal could be occurring.
"I've done over 100 car stops. We kind of know the behavior of someone possibly armed or concealing something," Lilly testified.
Ballard's attorney, Jerome LaCorte, said his client made the same motion as someone reaching down to tie a shoe. "Would this have been any different if the car was in, say, Roland Park?"
Moss' attorney, Roland Brooks, challenged the assertion that the men were in a "high-crime area."
"I grew up six blocks away," Brooks told Baltimore Circuit Judge Louis Becker. "When I go there, I don't think I'm going to a 'high-crime neighborhood.' I'm going home."
Becker, a retired Howard County judge who, like many retired judges, continues to hear cases, said he was sympathetic to split-second decisions police have to make. But he said Lilly went too far when he leaned into the vehicle to observe the gun, which meant the gun hadn't been in plain view. After suppressing the evidence, he acquitted the two men of the charges they faced.
"Sometimes what constitutes good police work does not pass muster in the cold, calm atmosphere of a Baltimore courtroom," Becker said at the hearing.
Two months after the acquittal, Ballard was sentenced to three years in prison on drug charges in Baltimore County. In late May, Moss was arrested again with a handgun and ordered held without bond.
Search and seizure
Davis, the police commissioner, said that some cases they thought were clear-cut fell apart in court. For instance, he said that even when police find an illegal gun while executing a warrant, which provides solid legal grounds for a search, they still might not get a conviction.
In one case stemming from a January arrest, detectives had obtained a search warrant for the home of David Graham, believing he was involved in drug distribution in East Baltimore. Police forced open the door and found a gun in a shoe box inside a bedroom closet. Graham, convicted in 2013 of armed robbery, was prohibited from possessing a gun.
At trial, Assistant State's Attorney Corey Kropp told jurors that the case was "very simple": There was a gun in Graham's home, and Graham wasn't allowed to have a gun in his home. He didn't need to be holding the gun to be guilty, Kropp said.
A detective testified that Graham insisted the gun wasn't his but said he would "take the charge" so that his child's mother — who was home at the time of the search — wasn't implicated in the crime.
Graham's attorney, Roland Brown, told jurors that police lacked evidence that it was Graham's gun.
During his closing argument, Brown faulted police for not finding fingerprints on the gun or testing it for DNA. He also noted that the gun was found in a Puma shoe box — Brown said that Graham didn't wear the kind of Pumas listed on the box. He said police could have traced credit card transactions to tie the box to Graham — but didn't.
Brown said he agreed with Kropp that it was an "easy case — the lack of evidence makes it easy to find this man not guilty."
After about an hour of deliberation, jurors found Graham not guilty.
Eight days later, police allege Graham shot a man in the chest at a dice game in East Baltimore. He's now jailed awaiting trial on charges of first-degree attempted murder.
The Baltimore Sun analyzed 100 illegal-gun cases in which defendants were arrested between November and March to get a sample of cases that have mostly been adjudicated. About one-quarter of the cases were dropped, a rate that Mosby said is typical.
Mosby said the average sentence for such gun crimes since she took office in January 2015 has been 16 months. This year, police say the number is lower — six months for those cases that have been adjudicated.
Prosecutors say people convicted of having a gun in a vehicle have received 6 percent of the total possible sentence they could receive. People convicted of carrying an illegal gun have received 15 percent of the available time, while felons convicted of possessing a firearm received a quarter of the total possible sentence.
Webster, the Johns Hopkins professor, said not all people arrested with guns should receive extended prison time. "Even if the consequences are not super long, but you know you are going to jail — that is what is most important," he said.
In 2008, city officials reported that nearly 60 percent of defendants charged with gun crimes were held without bail, and about 30 percent received bail of more than $100,000. Only 8 percent received a bail below $100,000.
Police data from this year show 34 percent of defendants charged with gun crimes were held without bail, and nearly 20 percent received a bail below $100,000.
Doral Cooke, 24, was charged with five different gun counts, including being a felon in possession of a firearm, and was given an $85,000 bail. He posted it and was released on Dec. 11, and in January was charged in the killing Dec. 16 of 24-year-old Devin Crutchfield in Halethorpe.
Davis said the data may help explain why police have seen a significant increase in gun seizures since last year but no decline in shootings — there have been more than 750 shootings, including more than 250 homicides.
He wants the expectation among criminals to be that they'll get jail time if caught with an illegal gun. "If the certainty was 18 months, and they knew they were going to get that and see every bit of it, I'm OK with that," he said.
Mosby said she sees trends in the data that need to be improved upon.
"That's one of the reasons we need the unit," she said, referring to the new Gun Violence Enforcement Division that includes top prosecutors and police detectives, "so we can better investigate and prosecute these cases."
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Even amid a rise in violent crime, Davis and Mosby cautioned residents against feeling they need to arm themselves. Davis recounted being at a shooting scene recently and talking to a father who said his son carries a gun for protection because the streets are so dangerous.
"You're more inclined in this day and age, if you have a loaded weapon, to utilize it, to solve your issues or problems in the street," Mosby said, "and that's unacceptable, and you're going to be held accountable."
City leaders also hope to strengthen state laws to crack down on illegal guns.
Over the years, they have sought a number of changes in the Maryland General Assembly. The legislature passed one of the nation's strictest gun-control laws in 2013, requiring people who buy a handgun to submit fingerprints to state police and banning dozens of types of assault weapons.
But when Davis lobbied in Annapolis this year for legislation to impose a mandatory one-year prison sentence for anyone caught with a loaded, illegal firearm, the effort failed. A second offense would have required a sentence of at least five years.
Davis said he's searching for a way to reintroduce the bill in a revised format in next year's legislative session.