By Bree Davies
By William Breathes
By William Breathes
By Michael Robert
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
On February 14, Denver mayor Wellington Webb made Tom Strickland his valentine. At a press conference at Civic Center Park, Webb presented the former U.S. attorney turned Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate with a glittering endorsement. In praising his many efforts as Colorado's chief federal prosecutor, the mayor paid special attention to Strickland's role in implementing Project Exile, a program in which previously convicted felons caught with firearms are marked for harsh federal prosecution.
"Tom was sworn in the day after the terrible tragedy at Columbine, and he vowed to target gun violence and make our neighborhoods safer," Webb said. "Under his leadership, Colorado Project Exile nearly tripled gun-crime prosecutions in the state."
The numbers are indeed impressive. In the twelve-month period before Strickland launched the program in September 1999, 72 Colorado residents were charged with violating federal firearms laws. Between September 1999 and January 2002 (when the most recent court cases were made publicly available), 308 individuals were prosecuted on federal firearms charges as part of Project Exile.
The figures jumped because Project Exile calls for prosecutors to wield like a scythe Title 18 of the Federal Firearms Statutes, which outlaws the possession of firearms by "prohibited persons." This includes illegal aliens, anyone who has ever been committed to a mental institution, users of illicit drugs, anyone who has ever been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence and, most of all, anyone with a felony on his criminal record, whether it be for assault with a deadly weapon, forging a check or growing marijuana. What that means is that the mere possession of a gun by a member of one of these groups -- whether or not another crime is involved -- is punishable by a federal prison sentence of up to twenty years.
Before Project Exile, Title 18 charges were primarily tacked on to stiffen the sentences of violent criminals; for example, a convicted felon who used a gun to rob a bank would be charged with illegal possession of a firearm in addition to armed bank robbery. That's not the way it works anymore. Project Exile has radically altered the number and nature of federal firearms prosecutions in Colorado, both under Strickland and under his successor, John Suthers, who was appointed by President George W. Bush last July. Exile is an all-out dragnet, designed to snare as many violators of Title 18 as possible, no matter how serious their felony record or how technical their violation. Local and state police officers, even park rangers, have been trained to check anyone in possession of a firearm against a database of prohibited persons, and to turn him or her in to federal authorities if they find a match.
"The message of this initiative is simple," Strickland declared the day he announced Exile. "If you violate federal gun laws, you will go to federal prison. The goal of this program is to change the culture of gun violence in America."
Whatever its actual impact on crime and violence, Project Exile has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it is massively effective when it comes to putting people in prison. In a January 11 press release, the U.S. Attorney's Office reported that "of the 213 who have been convicted to date, federal judges have handed down sentences to 173 of them, with prison sentences totaling 10,883 months (over 900 years)." The remaining forty individuals are awaiting sentencing.
When they talk about Project Exile, federal authorities always talk tough. "The purpose of Colorado Project Exile is to get guns away from criminals so criminals can't use them to commit crimes," Suthers says. "Federal prisons aren't like your local county jail. They're scattered all over the country. So when you get sent to the federal pen, you're not getting visitors every week. You're miles from home, and you're there for a long time."
"The people we go after are the worst of the worst -- the bad guys, the career criminals --and we get them in the penitentiary for as long as we can," adds Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Special Agent Rich Marianos, who is also the lead investigator for Project Exile's Gun Task Force. "Removing them from the streets of Colorado is the best way to make those streets safer."
But these claims are vulnerable to debate. A review by Westword of every Project Exile prosecution through January of this year strongly suggests that the level of discussion over the initiative should be raised beyond a simple running tally of convictions and prison sentences. This is especially true in the cases of the 191 individuals who were prosecuted only for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, and not for violating other federal firearms laws such as those against making false statements to gun dealers or against possessing an unregistered machine gun.
These prosecutions represent the driving ideology of Project Exile, because the defendants most likely would not have been prosecuted prior to its existence (see Down and Out).
Among the findings from these 191 cases:
The majority of the defendants -- 154 out of 191 -- have no violent felonies on their records; two were illegal aliens with no criminal record at all. Among the 37 who do have a history of violence, seventeen did not use a gun in their previous crime. This means that just slightly more than one in ten of the prohibited persons prosecuted under Project Exile -- twenty out of 191 -- has a proven history of gun violence. Among those twenty, the most common charge was "felony menacing," meaning the person had brandished a gun but hadn't pulled the trigger. Only four of the defendants had been convicted of actually shooting a gun during a crime.
In 54 cases, the sole felony on the record of the defendant was possession of a controlled substance. And the most common scenario in which an Exile defendant has been in possession of a firearm is during a search of his house for illegal drugs (43 cases). In this regard, Project Exile is functioning as a new offensive in the War on Drugs. It has put far more small-time drug dealers and addicts in prison than it has armed robbers or carjackers.
"The message of Project Exile sounds great: 'Combat gun violence.' Who could be against that, right?" says Mark Mauer, spokesman for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates "humane alternatives to incarceration." "But when you have a program of such magnitude that is putting hundreds of people in federal prison for long sentences with no chance of parole...you need to go beyond the message and take a long, hard look at the underlying assumptions. The underlying assumption in this instance is that putting a lot of people in prison for the unsanctioned possession of a firearm equals out to combating gun violence. I'm not convinced that assumption is correct."
James Allison is. And because Allison is the leader of Project Exile's team of federal prosecutors in Colorado, what he thinks matters a great deal to any felon caught with a firearm.
"I appreciate that a person who has been convicted for murder or for aggravated robbery who is walking around with a gun, the odds are higher they're more dangerous than a person who has a conviction for mail fraud," he says. "But that doesn't mean I want the person who has a conviction for mail fraud walking around with a gun.
"Regardless of where you stand on Second Amendment issues, we all know guns are very dangerous things. They kill people," Allison continues. "And while the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to posses them in this country, which I do not argue with, it clearly creates a situation where people with bad judgment who have a gun are more inclined to hurt and kill people. And from my observation, people who have felony convictions, whether they're forgery, writing bad checks, stealing or doing anything else that's nonviolent, they have bad judgment. And I agree with Congress that if you're going to limit the possession of firearms, let's start with people who've been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have exercised very poor judgment. And that's one class of people that I have no problem saying should not be in possession of a device which can so easily kill other human beings."
But under Project Exile, "possession" has become an elastic term.
In one Exile case, for instance, a man with a Texas burglary on his record was prosecuted in Colorado for possession of a firearm after a Denver Police Department officer saw him helping his girlfriend pick out a gun in a pawnshop. In another case, a woman with two five-year-old felony convictions for theft and possession of a controlled substance was prosecuted for posing naked with several handguns for photographs taken by the professional photographer who owned the guns for use as props. The woman was charged with illegal possession of a firearm after the photographer posted the images to a pay-per-view Internet porn site and her estranged husband saw them and turned her in.
One of the first individuals prosecuted under Project Exile was Cameron Joseph, who will turn 28 later this month inside the Federal Correctional Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Before he became a Project Exile case, Joseph had a single felony on his record, having pleaded guilty in 1997 to attempted distribution of a controlled substance. Joseph served a little over a year in state prison before entering a supervised release program.
On November 6, 1999, Joseph had just come home from his job at a Starbucks in Colorado Springs when he answered a knock on the front door of his girlfriend's apartment, where he was staying. It was Joseph's probation officer, come to pay a surprise visit. During a search of the apartment, the probation officer saw the handle of an unloaded 9mm pistol protruding from a box on a shelf in a spare bedroom. Joseph was arrested on the spot. He later pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm and was sentenced to four years in federal prison. Like any federal prisoner convicted since Congress passed the Federal Sentencing Act in 1987, he has no chance for parole. And once he gets out, he will have a second felony on his record, ensuring that even a misdemeanor charge in the future could land him back in prison.
"It was a very stiff sentence, and I'm still not sure how it served the public interest," says Martha Eskesen, a criminal defense lawyer and former staff attorney for the United States District Court who was appointed to represent Joseph. "I remember that around that time, Tom Strickland was having Project Exile T-shirts and hats made up for all the prosecutors, and I was wondering what baseball caps had to do with reducing gun violence. It seemed like a big PR campaign for Tom Strickland."
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."
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.
Now Strickland is on the campaign trail, the Democratic front-runner in the race to challenge Republican incumbent Wayne Allard. And he's using Project Exile as the first and best example of his "involvement in issues that matter to Coloradans." However, last month Strickland canceled an interview with Westword in which he was scheduled to discuss Project Exile, citing a conflict with a campaign appearance. He asked instead to respond to questions in writing.
In doing so, he reiterated the Columbine link: "The tragedy at Columbine sent shock waves throughout Colorado and America," he wrote. "It reminded us all of the unacceptable level of gun violence in this country and led to widespread public demand for every level of law enforcement to do something. I took this matter seriously and did everything in my power to vigorously enforce existing federal gun laws, build a partnership with state and local law enforcement and bring the various sides of the gun debate together."
Colorado's Project Exile was modeled on a similar program established in 1997 in the high-crime city of Richmond, Virginia. Violent crime there steadily declined in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Proponents of Project Exile, including Strickland and President Bush, have repeatedly pointed to these statistics as proof that Project Exile works. But this argument ignores the fact that violent crime has declined in cities all over the country, something many experts have attributed to the booming U.S. economy of the late 1990s.
Gun violence in Colorado has also gone down since the rise of Project Exile. According to FBI crime statistics for 1999 and 2000 -- the most recent reliable numbers available -- homicides involving firearms here decreased from 125 in 1999 to 87 in 2000. Even discounting the Columbine homicides in 1999, that's a dramatic drop. Also significant is a decrease in gunshot-wound hospitalizations attributed to assaults: from 157 in 1999 to 117 in 2000.
But Colorado prosecutor Allison concedes that the relationship between these numbers and Project Exile is murky at best. "The measurement of the program's success is difficult," he says. "Homicide rates go up, homicide rates go down. We're in a long period where they've been declining, and of course we'd like to be able to say that shows we've been successful with Project Exile. That may be a stretch. But I can tell you one thing, having prosecuted criminals for thirty years, and that is that there are people alive today because of this program. I can't name them, but I'm absolutely convinced there are people who have not been killed, who have not gone to the ER, who have not been paralyzed from the waist down, who are alive and okay right now because somebody who had a gun illegally is sitting in prison instead of being out on the streets armed with that gun."
This argument appears to be going over well in Colorado, where Project Exile has remained free of controversy compared to its counterpart in Virginia. There the program has drawn fire from minority leaders who have claimed that Project Exile unfairly targets blacks, who, as in Colorado, make up the greatest number of Exile cases; of the 191 individuals prosecuted for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, 77 were African-American, 41 were Hispanic, one was Native American, and 72 were white.
The Virginia program has also generated criticism from federal judges. In a 2000 decision upholding the constitutionality of Project Exile, judges for the United States District Court for Eastern Virginia took issue with its "substantial federal incursion into a sovereign state's area of authority and responsibility."
And in January 2001, Virginia U.S. District Court Judge Richard Williams wrote a letter to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist in which he complained, "Project Exile has transformed our court into a minor-grade police court. More than 200 gun-possession cases totally lacking in federal significance have been processed through our court. Not only does this do violence to the concept of federalism, but the cost to national taxpayers is at least three times more than if the state handled these cases."
U.S. District Court judges in Colorado who find their dockets increasingly crammed with Project Exile cases have yet to similarly lambaste the program in public -- with one notable exception.
The same month that Judge Williams was complaining to the Supreme Court, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch, best known for presiding over the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, ordered Allison in a court hearing to reconsider the government's case against Katica Crippen, the woman who was prosecuted for posing naked with firearms. One of only four women charged simply with illegal possession of a firearm (rather than other felonies) as part of Project Exile, Crippen was easily the most notorious. Federal sentencing guidelines called for her to do at least five years in addition to the remaining two years of her Colorado state prison sentence for her original 1997 felonies.
Judge Matsch wasn't having it. "How far is this policy of locking people up with guns going to go?" he asked Allison. "I want to know why this is a federal case. Who decided this is a federal crime?"
The prosecutor replied that the decision had been his and added that he was unhappy that Matsch would question his judgment.
"My judgment is questioned every day by appeals courts," Matsch snapped.
Allison persisted in prosecuting Crippen, who eventually pleaded guilty. When he sentenced her, though, Matsch deviated from federal guidelines and gave her just fourteen months. "This violation is a very technical one," he said at the time.
Strickland was still the chief federal prosecutor in Colorado during the Crippen case, and he signed off on her prosecution. Asked in writing if he still believes that putting Crippen in prison was consistent with the goals of Project Exile, Strickland writes, "Federal gun law provides that convicted felons forfeit their right to possess weapons. Enforcement of existing gun laws is a crucial part of reducing gun violence in America."
Crippen will begin serving her federal prison sentence in 2004, once her state sentence is complete.
The commercial begins with the sound of wind whistling over a lonely prairie. The camera pans to cyclones of razor wire atop the high walls of a federal prison outside Yankton, South Dakota. It then cuts to an intake area inside the prison, where a newly arrived inmate is processed. Two guards walk him down a long hall to his awaiting cell. Other prisoners catcall and whistle at him.
Words flash on the screen: "Think carrying a 9mm makes you a man?"
There is a pause, and more whistling.
"Lots of people in federal prison find that attractive."
The screen fades to black. A Project Exile logo appears, along with this message: "Pack an illegal gun, pack your bags for prison."
Created by the prominent Madison Avenue advertising firm of Young and Rubicam, the TV spot was seen last summer by tens of thousands of Denver television viewers watching the Jerry Springer Show and World Wrestling Federation events. It was funded by Colorado Project Exile, a private nonprofit organization that raises money to support the federal program of the same name.
"Project Exile isn't just a partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement, it's also a partnership between federal law enforcement and local business and civic leaders," says Melissa MacDonald, executive director of the nonprofit group.
Officially endorsed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which passed a resolution in support of Colorado Project Exile as a response to the Columbine shootings, MacDonald's organization has raised more than $1 million in grants from several Colorado charitable foundations. Donors include the Coors Foundation, the Rose Foundation and the Colorado Trust, which granted Project Exile $250,000 as part of an ongoing seven-year, $8 million violence-prevention initiative. Exile is the only tough-on-crime element of the trust's initiative, which otherwise focuses on suicide prevention and outreach to children.
In addition to the TV ads, money raised by the nonprofit group went toward the making of a fifteen-minute training video shown to Denver police officers last spring during roll calls at all six of the department's substations.
"We did training sessions all hours of the day and night, and we covered every single one of the 64 roll calls," MacDonald says. "It was phenomenal. "We had someone there from the U.S. Attorney's Office to speak, and then we showed the video. The basic message of the training movie is if you bust someone and find a gun, make sure to check their record, and if they appear to meet the qualifications for Project Exile, notify federal authorities."
The organization also funded ads on billboards and bus benches that encouraged citizens to turn in felons they know who have firearms, offering a hotline number that rings in the Colorado Springs offices of the ATF. According to court documents, anonymous tips and confidential informants led to at least 26 Project Exile prosecutions last year.
Colorado Project Exile is an unusual entity, however, a private, nonprofit recipient of charitable donations used to support a federal law-enforcement crackdown.
"The easy answer for why they exist is that we can't fundraise," explains Dick Weatherbee, law enforcement coordinator for the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office. "We have no mechanism to either solicit or accept funds from outside sources. Advertising is pretty expensive, and it's a significant part of one of our primary objectives, and we wouldn't have been able to do it without a nonprofit that raises money from non-appropriated sources."
But funding is flush now. Last November, when President Bush addressed the Conference of U.S. Attorneys in Washington, D.C., he announced $558.8 million in new funding to implement Project Exile -- which has been rechristened "Project Safe Neighborhoods" -- in each of the country's 93 U.S. attorneys' districts.
"If you use a gun illegally, you will do hard time," Bush said, sounding a familiar note. "This nation must enforce the gun laws which are already on the books."
By this time next year, Project Safe Neighborhoods will be nationwide.
As part of this expansion, Colorado will receive money for three new full-time federal gun prosecutors in addition to funding for eight new state and local prosecutors to help develop Exile cases.
The state will also get a one-time allocation of $500,000 for "gun-violence reduction programs." MacDonald expects that her group will get a good slice of that pie, meaning the nonprofit will become a federally funded organization that, in essence, will then be funding the federal government.
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.
"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."
"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."
The letter described an idyllic family life in the Martinez household when Frank and Victor were children, until their father was murdered before their eyes in 1986, shot five times in the chest. A court-ordered psychiatrist who examined Victor prior to his sentencing diagnosed him with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as alcohol abuse, major depression and paranoid personality disorder, all attributed to having been a witness to his father's killing.
Frank wrote that once he was thrust into the role of breadwinner at age fifteen, he turned to crime to bring in money. "Unfortunately for Victor, who followed my every move, he was caught in the vacuum of these events, while feeling both abandoned and virtually lost within what was once a strong family fold. Victor pretty much followed my footsteps out into the criminal mix, while never truly having a grip on the future ramifications until it was way too late," he wrote. "Granted, I could probably sit here and attempt to use my father's untimely demise as the reasoning behind both my brother's and my own problems. But I do believe that after a certain age, grown men are responsible for their own actions, no matter how they are dissected and rationalized by social workers.
"However, with what I can only characterize as an unforgiving sentencing structure, it's extremely unfortunate that Victor is facing a sentence that does not have a direct correlation with the severity of the crime in question," Frank concluded. "The disproportionality of my brother's possible sentence does not take into account that he has a loving mother and a family who will be serving time right along with him. Myself and Victor's loving family ask for mercy from this Honorable Court."
That mercy wasn't forthcoming. Three months later, Judge Miller sentenced Victor to twenty years in prison -- the longest sentenced handed down under Project Exile for illegal possession of a firearm.
"I seen people killing people who ain't getting this much," Martinez said as he was led away. "I can't believe how much time you getting me for a gun."