Living in Exile

Federal prisons are filling up with people whose only crime is the possession of a gun.

Eskesen served briefly as a federal prosecutor under Strickland early in his tenure before she returned to private practice; she has also co-chaired the Criminal Justice Act Standing Committee for the District of Colorado, which oversees court-appointed defense lawyers in federal cases. She observes that the vast majority of Project Exile defendants have been too poor to afford their own attorney. Court-appointed lawyers and federal public defenders represented 170 out of the 191 individuals indicted for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.

Eskesen also points out that Project Exile has provided no new funding to the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Colorado -- only an increased caseload. At the same time, the Department of Justice has provided new funding to hire three full-time federal prosecutors assigned solely to Exile cases.

"It's not fair, but then I'm not sure fairness is, in fact, the guiding principle of Project Exile," she says. "I think it may be simply racking up convictions. The net result so far has been a lot more people put in prison for long sentences and a lot of money spent. And I think it's worth asking at this point if the purpose being served is truly to protect the public, or if is it more to advance certain political agendas and careers."

Criminal defense lawyer Martha Eskesen has questioned the goals of Project Exile.
Anthony Camera
Criminal defense lawyer Martha Eskesen has questioned the goals of Project Exile.

Cason Garcia has an IQ of 61, which places him in the bottom 1 percent of the population in terms of intellectual functioning. He has several misdemeanors on his criminal record, for everything from shoplifting candy to carrying a set of homemade brass knuckles, and one felony, a 1996 conviction for acting as a lookout in a burglary.

In January of 2000, Garcia, then 26, asked a friend named Dan Mares if he wanted to buy a .22-caliber rifle for $100. Mares, who knew Garcia was a felon on probation, told him he'd buy the gun but then informed on Garcia to Longmont Police Department detective Jeffery Gooch. According to court documents, Gooch instructed Mares to persuade Garcia to pawn the weapon. The next day, Mares picked up Garcia, supposedly to drive him to a pawnshop.

But Detective Gooch quickly pulled them over, and Mares gave him permission to search the car. The rifle was in the trunk. When Garcia said it was his, Gooch forwarded his report to Project Exile prosecutors. Garcia is now doing four years in federal prison.

Sidney Allen Smith was smoking pot in his car the night of June 21, 2000, when a Denver police officer on routine patrol observed the vehicle parked behind a closed business in an alley off the 3000 block of Downing Street. The officer deemed the car suspicious and approached it. In a search, he found a 9mm pistol under the back seat, which Smith, then 25, said he owned. Back at the police station, the officer ran Smith's name and found that he had a 1995 felony conviction for possession of a controlled substance, for which Smith had been sentenced to probation. Smith is now serving a three-year federal prison sentence.

Garcia and Smith are typical Exile targets, but prosecutors do not detail their cases at press conferences and banquet luncheons. Instead, the dubious honor of Project Exile poster boy belongs to 22-year-old Rudo Thompson, aka "Rude Dog."

When he was eighteen, Thompson was convicted of first-degree felony assault for firing a gun during a carjacking and served two years in state prison. On April 20, 1999 -- the same day as the Columbine shootings and one day before Strickland took office -- Thompson was pulled over for running a stop sign, and a .22-caliber pistol was found in his car.

Had Project Exile been in effect at the time, he would have been prosecuted for illegally possessing the gun. But it would be another five months before Strickland activated the program. During that time, Thompson was arrested for selling crack to an undercover officer at the corner of 27th Avenue and Downing. He was out on bail in February 2000, awaiting trial, when Denver patrolman Bret Titus attempted to pull him over for speeding. Thompson jumped out of his car and ran. Titus unleashed his canine partner, Oscar. During the ensuing chase, a .45-caliber pistol and a half-ounce of cocaine fell out of Thompson's pants as he tried to jump a fence. A jury found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm and of carrying a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime. Thompson was sentenced to fifteen years.

Strickland first introduced Thompson to the public on September 8, 2000, where, flanked by Titus and Oscar, he announced that in the first year of Project Exile, federal firearms prosecutions had more than doubled. Strickland also unveiled the first in a series of Project Exile television advertisements featuring celebrity defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, who intoned, "If you've got a prior felony conviction and you're caught with a gun, not even I can get you off."

Two weeks later, Strickland delivered the keynote address at a two-day U.S. Department of Education conference held in Denver titled "Picking Up the Pieces: Responding to School Crises." In his speech, he linked Project Exile with lingering outrage over the Columbine school shootings of the year before. "Columbine crystallized public opinion in a way that no prior act of gun violence did," he told his hotel-ballroom audience. Strickland then held up Rudo Thompson again as a prime example of a Project Exile target.

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