Living in Exile

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

Exile prosecutor Allison makes it clear that Colorado Project Exile's "support for us has nothing to do with the actual hands-on investigation or prosecution of crime. They're in the business of telling people what we're doing in court and what we're doing on the streets, and spreading the word that we are serious."

In fact, last year's advertising marked only the first phase of Project Exile's publicity efforts, MacDonald notes. "That was the mass marketing. We're now moving into strategic marketing directly to parolees in high-gun-crime areas."

Using a police map that pinpoints crimes involving guns, MacDonald has identified neighborhoods in and around Five Points, East Colfax Avenue and north Denver along Federal Boulevard as the ones to target. "We're going to be putting up billboards in those areas specifically, and approaching store owners with posters they can put up in their front windows," she says, adding that Colorado Project Exile has also been training parole officers to impress upon their charges the severity of the federal government's treatment of felons who possess firearms.

Hadley Hooper
U.S. Senate candidate Tom Strickland is using Project Exile as a stumping point.
U.S. Senate candidate Tom Strickland is using Project Exile as a stumping point.

"Our new slogans are 'Gun Crime Means Hard Time,'" she says, and a slight variation on the old "Pack an Illegal Gun, Pack Your Bags for Prison." It's now "Pack a Gun Illegally, Pack Your Bags for Prison."

It was the National Rifle Association that wanted the change. "The NRA asked us to put the emphasis more on the illegal action of the individual rather than on the gun," MacDonald says.

And the NRA gets what it wants from Colorado Project Exile, since the pro-gun organization helps pay to put that message forth. On March 6, 2000, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre shared a stage in a downtown Denver hotel with longtime political foe and Handgun Control Inc. founder James Brady to announce their mutual support for Colorado Project Exile and matching donations of $25,000 each.

Ignoring a pelting of boos from the crowd, LaPierre testified, "I look at today as creating an atmosphere of peace. This program is the most commonsense program of all. I want violent criminals who touch guns, drug dealers who touch guns, to know that the NRA is their worst enemy." LaPierre has since made several public appearances in support of Project Exile in Virginia and in Texas, where then-governor Bush instituted a version of the program in 1999.

In fact, wherever it goes, Project Exile has managed to tuck in the sheets for strange bedfellows. Gun-control proponents support it because they say it takes guns off the streets along with the felons who carry them; anti-gun-control advocates like it because it allows them to come out strongly against gun violence without supporting new gun restrictions. As Allison puts it, "Good prosecution transcends politics."

Previously championed by President Bill Clinton and his attorney general, Janet Reno, Project Exile's banner has now been taken up by President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"The fact that this started in Colorado with Tom Strickland and has been carried forth vigorously by Tom Suthers and the Bush administration I think shows that it is not only good law enforcement, but that good law enforcement is good politics," Allison says. "I also think that the fact that Congress and the Bush administration will spend the amount of money that it takes to enforce these laws is an indication this is a smart program, and it's something the American people want and are willing to spend their money on. I feel fortunate these political judgments have been made."

On June 31, 2000, 29-year-old Frank Martinez sat before a computer in the library of the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colorado, tapping out a plea for the life of his younger brother, Victor.

His letter was addressed to U.S. District Court Judge Walker Miller, who was scheduled to sentence Victor Martinez to federal prison for a Project Exile conviction of illegal possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Though only 25, Victor already had three violent felonies on his record for menacing, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, as well as a slew of misdemeanor convictions.

The previous November, Victor had been driving around Colorado Springs, collecting on a cocaine debt, when he pulled into the driveway of Isadore Romero, who approached the vehicle, saw a black pistol in Martinez's lap, became frightened and called the police. Two hours later, a patrolman found Martinez in his car and tried to block him in from behind. Martinez threw his car in reverse, rammed the cop car and fled on foot. He was caught a short time later; a .45-caliber semi-automatic was found in the back of the car he had been driving.

Victor pleaded not guilty. He said the gun belonged to a passenger who had been riding with him earlier in the day. A jury found him guilty in April 2000, and his older brother knew Victor was looking at hard time.

"This letter is predicated upon my fervent desire to give you a better perception about my younger brother before his sentencing in the very near future," the letter to Judge Miller began. "I believe it is imperative that I offer my input as a means to give a more clear visualization about our family's past and the problematic situations that have occurred over the course of Victor's young, yet troubled life."

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