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Federal public defender Gaylie maintains that programs such as Triggerlock seek to remedy the failures of the state criminal system, while simultaneously relying on state courts as a source of prior convictions. Because of severe overcrowding at the state level, he notes, defendants often are encouraged to accept pleas for the sake of convenience. "Everybody knows how it goes," Gaylie says. "A guy's charged with burglary. By the time he gets to court, the judge says, `If you plead guilty, I'll let you go right now on time served,' and the guy takes the plea. No trial. No proof. No real due process. But the conviction goes down on his record, anyway."
DuCuennois counters that with more than 500 potential Triggerlock defendants identified each year, ATF agents target only those criminals deserving of hard time. "The guys we choose for prosecution have spent their lives proving a propensity for violent crime," he says. "We're just stopping the revolving door out of jail."
And in theory, that door shouldn't be hard to stop. As officials note in the 1991 Department of Justice manual: "Prosecutions under this statute are usually relatively straightforward and do not require significant investigative or prosecutorial resources."
Indeed, the fundamentals of prosecuting a Triggerlock case involve proving three points: that the defendant is a thrice-convicted felon, that he or she possessed a gun, and that the gun traveled in interstate commerce after its manufacture (a technicality that elevates the possession to a federal case). Because the first and third points are rarely disputed, cases hinge on the issue of possession itself, which usually boils down to the word of a convicted felon against one or more cops.
That's what it came down to in Richard Vann's case. On April 23, 1991, Vann, a Miamian with a string of felony convictions stretching back to 1979, was arrested by an undercover cop who reported hearing shots go off and seeing Vann throw down a .380 Remington semiautomatic gun. Vann later told assistant federal public defender Hugo Rodriguez a different story. Denying that he'd dumped a gun, he maintained that he had intervened during a bungled drug deal and helped two buyers escape with their lives. "We thought he was crazy," Rodriguez recalls. "Until our investigators found the original police report."
In that report, City of Miami police officer Rolando Jacobo described the events exactly as Vann had. Only in a supplemental report did Jacobo note Vann's alleged possession of a weapon. (Jacobo refused comment for this article). What's more, the defendant's fingerprints did not show up on the Remington found at the scene. Rodriguez says that when he confronted the prosecutor with his new information before the trial, the case was dismissed.
"The whole thing was an embarrassment," recalls Rodriguez, whose 1991 record on Triggerlock cases includes one other eleventh-hour dismissal, as well as an acquittal. "The attitude is, `If you've got an arrest form and three previous convictions, you've got a case.' That's all the grand jury has to see to hand down an indictment. In Vann's case, I don't think the prosecutor ever got a full police report. If you're going to put a guy away for fifteen years, you should at least get into what went down on the street."
Triggerlock coordinator Jon Weyman says his prosecutors rely on ATF agents for case information. "ATF is the screening agency," he points out. "Any investigation is done by them. They tell us what we know." He adds that cases are dismissed for various reasons, including the desire to refile charges after further investigation.
ATF's DuCuennois maintains that all Triggerlock cases pass through multiple levels of review. "We meet with state and federal prosecutors. Look at police investigations. Talk to witnesses. Compile exhibits and graphics. Do whatever needs to be done to get the case together," he insists. "These cases are not as easy as taking an arrest form and an officer to federal court. A lot of times you've got crime scenes that are far from ideal. Also, people usually don't cooperate with prosecutors, where defendants can find witnesses to back up their story."
DuCuennois admits, however, that in the Parker and Vann cases, evidence found after ATF's investigation indicated both men had attempted to disarm someone else. "We feel good about the fact that we dismiss cases when we get new information," he says. "It would be travesty of justice if we didn't."
Lori Barrist had a good year in 1991. Too good, she says. An assistant federal public defender for almost seven years, Barrist won eleven acquittals last year - a record, according to veterans in her office. Four were Triggerlock cases. "There are some federal public defenders who go through a whole career without an acquittal," Barrist says. "But I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, because the truth is the cases being brought are just so weak."
Barrist credits the public defender's investigators, a skilled team she says often unearths more about the circumstances leading to a defendant's arrest than the law enforcement officials probing the charges. And like her colleagues, she expresses outrage at the notion that her clients face at least fifteen years in prison solely for possession of a firearm. "I try to explain these cases to friends and they just don't understand. They say, `But what was he doing with the gun? Threatening someone? Robbing a bank?' And I tell them, `No. A cop just says the gun was on him. That's it.' Obviously the cops are not proving believable."