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GOING AFTER GUNS
PROJECT EXILE AIMS TO TAKE CRIMINALS OFF THE STREET

Arthur Lee Dukes, caught selling crack cocaine and carrying a handgun in Orleans County, could be a free man today. His case was dismissed in state court.

But he's about to be exiled for 10 years to a federal prison, far from home.

Albert Jefferson is headed out of his community, too. Caught carrying a handgun in Rochester after a judge ordered him to stay away from someone -- a federal violation -- he could serve the next decade in a federal prison.

And Michael Huggins would never have been convicted of carrying a handgun under state law. The gun Rochester police seized from him wouldn't fire. But that doesn't matter under federal law. He is doing five years in a federal prison.

Project Exile, a gun control program supported by such unlikely allies as the National Rifle Association and Handgun Control, is coming to Buffalo after taking hundreds of illegal guns and criminals off the streets in Rochester, Richmond, Va., and Philadelphia.

"We want to change the mind-set that it's all right to carry a gun," said Bret A. Puscheck, an assistant U.S. attorney in Rochester who prosecutes Project Exile cases.

"Even if it's your first time in the system," he said, "we're going to take it seriously, put you in jail and take you out of the community."

Project Exile teams state and federal prosecutors who handle gun arrests only. They screen every gun case and decide which court, state or federal, would result in a more likely conviction and longer sentence.

Most times, it's federal court, which means gun felons in Rochester are sentenced to prisons that can be far from home, in a system that has no parole and very little time off for good behavior. You get 10 years in the federal system, you serve all but a few days.

Not everyone is convinced Project Exile is such a good idea.

Defense lawyers say the vast majority of those prosecuted -- 90 percent in Richmond -- are black. They've filed discrimination complaints in Richmond and Rochester.

A U.S. District judge in Richmond says Project Exile has turned federal court into police court. Petty street crime is clogging the system, he said, and federal taxpayers are subsidizing a job local authorities should be doing.

And the NRA's financial contributions, which help fund Project Exile's media campaign in Richmond and other cities but not Rochester, make gun-control opponents uneasy.

They said the NRA, which has long advocated enforcing existing gun laws rather than creating new ones, is using Project Exile to stall creation of tougher gun laws.

But prosecutors feel they can answer those complaints and are convinced of one thing: Project Exile works.

The message carried on buses, billboards and television ads -- "Project Exile. You illegal gun = Federal Prison" -- appears to be getting across in Rochester.

"I've heard stories from the jail," said Puscheck, the federal prosecutor. "When we get a conviction, the word goes through the jail: 'They got a federal conviction.' They're going to be shipped out of the community, not a couple of months in local or state jails."

Adds Howard Relin, the Monroe County district attorney: "The criminal who goes to county jail for a few months on a gun charge, it's like a fraternity party with all his buddies from the neighborhood. Now, he's going to a different state, where he doesn't know anyone."

"We've found it's getting harder to buy an illegal gun on the streets of Rochester," said Relin. "More people are carrying long guns. Our seizures of long guns are up 100 percent."

A gun of any kind in the hands of a criminal is one too many for authorities, but rifles and shotguns are much harder to conceal than handguns.

Relin said the drop in crime in Rochester since Project Exile began last year is the greatest he's seen in 32 years as a prosecutor.

"Richmond saw it, we're seeing it, and if any other community in the United States uses it, I think they will see it," he said.

"I really think it's important for federal prosecutors and the federal government to step up to the plate to fight illegal guns on the street," said Denise E. O'Donnell, the U.S. attorney in Buffalo who helped start the program in Rochester and is bringing it here.

"I think it's the single most important thing we have to do to fight violent crime."

Rochester's gun crimes

Rochester's image of a white-collar town, with corporate giants Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb, was soiled in recent years because of a growing crime problem tied to gangs.

While violent crime dropped across the United States in 1997 -- including an 11 percent decline in Buffalo -- FBI figures show Rochester saw its major crimes grow by nearly 6 percent.

Rochester, a city of 220,000 that lost a third of its residents since the 1960s, logged 59 murders in 1997, compared to 47 in Buffalo, its larger, more urban neighbor to the west.

Along with the increase in homicides, rapes and robberies, Rochester also saw a startling new trend: the willingness of criminals to shoot at police.

Rochester police were fired on nine times from July 1997 until the worst incident that December, when three officers were wounded. All three were wearing bullet-proof vests and were not seriously wounded.

The shootings and growing crime rate spawned a number of anti-crime programs in Rochester, but none that has had the impact of Project Exile.

It grew out of meetings of federal, state and local law enforcement officials and community leaders and was patterned after the successful program begun two years before in Richmond.

Relin, the Monroe County district attorney, got a $125,000 grant to hire two assistant district attorneys. Prosecutors and police officials met to iron out the jurisdictional problems with such varied agencies as the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Rochester police, Monroe County sheriff's department and the State Police.

"In Rochester, we worked on it about nine months before we announced it," said Mrs. O'Donnell, the U.S. attorney in Buffalo, whose jurisdiction extends to Rochester.

Just as important as getting law enforcement to give up turf battles was setting up a board of community leaders to help raise funds for advertising and get the city behind Project Exile.

Gary Mervis, the founder of Camp Good Days and Special Times, agreed to be the group's chairman.

He admits to a selfish reason for being involved.

"At Camp Good Days, we have a program for children whose family members have been a victim of homicide," said Mervis. He would love to see fewer and fewer of these campers each year. "What we were seeing was violence perpetuating violence."

Getting the word out

Soon after Project Exile officially began on Sept. 29 last year, billboards and buses were carrying the message that illegal guns meant a prison cell out of town.

A television ad developed in Richmond was modified for Rochester and started getting regular play. Showing the city's skyline, viewers heard a series of different types of gunfire, contrasting with the more peaceful sounds of crickets.

Every Rochester police officer was trained in both state and federal law involving firearms searches, seizures and arrests.

Puscheck, the federal prosecutor, and his counterparts in the district attorney's office -- who were cross-designated to handle cases in federal court -- started reviewing every gun arrest to see what could be prosecuted federally.

"We will look at every case involving a gun," he said. "But if it's a more serious charge in state court, we'll keep it there."

In Project Exile's first ten months, ending July 31, prosecutors brought gun cases against 126 defendants, 66 in state court, another 60 in federal court. Police took 270 illegal guns off the street.

"I think people realize we're serious about this," said Relin, the district attorney. "We're getting longer sentences in federal court, because of the better federal gun laws, but we're also starting to get longer sentences in county court."

And, he said, there's been one other benefit: "Since Project Exile went into effect, no police officer has been shot at."

The success stories

Arthur Lee Dukes, Albert Jefferson and Michael Huggins are success stories prosecutors point to in Project Exile.

Dukes, 26, was a crack dealer in Rochester targeted by a multi-county drug task force. Informants told investigators that Duke used a Tech 9 semiautomatic pistol to demand payment from those slow to pay.

As agents watched, Dukes sold crack to an informant in the late summer of 1996. But before they could set up another buy, Dukes disappeared. Two weeks later, when he resurfaced, officers arrested him in Orleans County.

But during a suppression hearing in Orleans County Court, Dukes' attorney was able to show that police had no cause under state law to stop Dukes, and the evidence was suppressed. An appeals court upheld the ruling.

Puscheck then took over the case under Project Exile and filed federal charges against Dukes, accusing him of possessing a firearm while trafficking in drugs.

Just prior to another suppression hearing, this time in U.S. District Court, Dukes entered a guilty plea. Last Monday, he was sentenced to ten years in federal prison.

Jefferson, 19, was convicted Sept. 9 after a trial on a federal charge of possessing a firearm -- a Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic pistol -- while he was the subject of an order of protection issued by Rochester City Court.

Jefferson's crime fell under the federal Violence Against Women Act, and when he returns to court for sentencing Dec. 8, he could be put in federal prison for ten years.

Huggins, 28, could not have been prosecuted under state law. A previously convicted felon, Huggins had a Raven semiautomatic handgun when he was arrested on May 1, 1998. But the gun would not fire, which under state law means there was no charge.

Puscheck, however, said Congress had written a federal law aimed at smugglers who were shipping weapons in pieces. Huggins, confronted with the law, pleaded guilty on April 15 and was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

"We're bound by the same rules," Puscheck said of Project Exile prosecutions. "We have to have a good solid case.

"But if you are caught with a gun," he said, "you are going to jail. We don't care if it's the first time in the system or the tenth time in the system. We feel we can reach the fringe player just thinking about getting into it by making an example of someone just like him."

Questioning Exile

Richard L. Williams, the senior U.S. District judge in Richmond, has seen Project Exile at work. He's concerned about its spread to other cities and wrote a letter in January to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

"Through an initiative called Project Exile," Williams wrote, "our court has been transformed into a minor grade state police court. More than 200 gun possession cases totally lacking in federal significance have been processed through our court."

Williams also questioned some of Project Exile's basic premises, saying that state law and federal law often carry equally strict sentences. And he said convicted defendants in his court often end up not exiled, but serving sentences in a federal prison that is closer to home than some state prisons.

In Rochester, Chief U.S. District Judge David G. Larimer said Project Exile has brought more cases to an already overloaded docket.

"It's adding as many 100 new cases in Rochester alone," he said. "It does create a burden. There is not an unlimited number of judges. Many of these cases involve pretrial hearings."

Funding for Project Exile has gone to the prosecution only, according to William Clauss, the federal public defender in the Western District of New York, who supplies free legal counsel to defendants in Rochester and Buffalo.

"There are people, including the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who have questioned whether it's an appropriate use of federal court resources to deal with what is typically viewed as street crime," said Clauss.

Clauss and defense lawyers in Richmond also filed motions claiming Project Exile discriminates against blacks, because the majority of those prosecuted are African American.

"We're targeting anyone who brings guns into our community," said Relin, the Monroe County district attorney. "I don't care if they're white, black, yellow, red or green. We'll take any defendant who brings a gun into our city."

Both motions were dismissed. Williams, the Project Exile critic in Richmond, made it clear he does not like the program, but said in his ruling there no evidence that it targeted blacks.

The Niagara experience

Project Exile is already in place, on a limited basis, in Niagara County. Its biggest case so far involves two men arrested in July for possessing six illegal machine guns. Niagara Falls police officers last week started receiving gun law training.

"I'm very happy with it so far," said District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III. "They say there has been dramatic reductions in violent crime in Rochester and Richmond, Va., but so far we don't have enough of a track record."

Project Exile's expansion into Niagara and Erie counties got a boost last month when U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer announced that Buffalo and Rochester will split $1 million in federal funding.

The money still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives, and Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, a former federal prosecutor himself, is eager to get started.

"It gives us more flexibility," he said. "It brings in the FBI, ATF, more resources."

"Let's face it," Clark added. "The feds need the grist for the mill. We're the grist. They need the street level crimes. They provide the resources, the extra jurisdiction."

As in Rochester, Project Exile will be part of a number of anti-crime programs that in Buffalo includes the Buffalo Police Department's successful Weed and Seed Initiative.

Officers in the Genesee Station neighborhood have taken 360 guns off the street in the area in the last two years, and Mrs. O'Donnell said the program will continue.

She also said a board of community leaders will be established here and said she expects Project Exile will get the word out through an ad campaign similar to Rochester's.

"I think the success in Richmond and Rochester was getting the entire community behind the program," she said. "Fighting gun violence is not just a law enforcement issue."

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