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Cases & Controversies
Quick on the Trigger
In Brooklyn's gun court the judge sentences first and asks questions later.
EVERY THURSDAY FROM APRIL 2003 UNTIL THIS AUGUST, defendants facing gun charges in New York City found themselves on the third floor of 120 Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights. Outside was the bustling commercial strip where much of Brooklyn's business gets done. Inside was one of the most severe judges in the city, Vincent Del Giudice.
For 13 years, Del Giudice was a prosecutor in Bronx County who worked on cases ranging from violent crimes to transit offenses. Then he served as a defense attorney for 10 years. Del Giudice was appointed to the bench in 2002 by Republican Governor George E. Pataki. A year later, he was sent to run Brooklyn's gun court, the first of its kind in New York City, until the judge rotated out of that position this fall and went back to presiding over general felony cases. Now 49, Del Giudice is a no-nonsense law-and-order judge with short-cropped silver hair and a booming voice, who became notorious for his tough sentences. "You go in there and it's like: Abandon all hope," said one defense lawyer who practices in Brooklyn.
Another defense lawyer, the 37-year veteran Howard Weiswasser, said he can usually predict which of his clients will get probation and which will end up doing time. But he was shocked in July 2003 when he represented Barry Pringle in Brooklyn's gun court. Weiswasser thought Pringle was a perfect candidate for probation. At 23, he had a full-time job as a janitor that paid $42,000 a year, he lived with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old daughter, and he had no prior criminal record. But in March that year, Pringle was putting a loaded 9mm gun in his pocket when it went off; a bullet hit the floor, ricocheted, and grazed his mother's cheek. Pringle immediately called the police and an ambulance. His mother, who wasn't seriously harmed, had no interest in pressing charges. Still, he was arrested for criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree.
Because Pringle gave the police a full confession, he had no defense to possessing a loaded gun, which is a felony in New York. So Weiswasser worked out a plea bargain. His client would admit to having an illegal weapon and the judge promised to think about a sentence of probation. But if Del Giudice considered the arguments for probation and no jail time, he rejected them. Costing Pringle his job, the judge sentenced him to six months in jail, followed by four and a half years' probation.
UNTIL LAST APRIL, WHEN NEW YORK CITY CREATED THE COURT to combat gun-related crime in the most dangerous sections of Brooklyn, which is both a borough of New York City and a separately incorporated city, a defendant caught with a gun had a chance at receiving probation. Although New York's weapons statute has long set out a "mandatory" one-year sentence, judges have the flexibility to impose less time or probation. Before there was a gun court, judges were more inclined to do so. Now, although the law hasn't changed, sentences in gun cases have. Nearly all defendants caught with an illegal gun in Brooklyn can expect to do jail time. Within the first seven months of the court's existence, jail sentences went up from a median of 90 days to one year, and the number of sentences of incarceration increased by 23 percent. Only 4 percent of defendants were given no jail time in those first seven months.
According to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, for the first 13 months of the gun court's existence, roughly 75 percent of the roughly 300 defendants to appear before Del Giudice ended up with sentences of at least one year in jail. In the rest of the borough, only about half the defendants arrested on felony weapons charges were sentenced to one year or more.
Brooklyn has hailed the court as a success, saying it has led to safer streets. In the first seven months of the court's existence, shootings in the five precincts covered by the court decreased by 15 percent, according to the city. Meanwhile, in the entire city of Brooklyn, according to the New York Police Department, including the precincts not covered by the gun court, the numbers stayed nearly constant for the year.
These numbers are far from conclusive. The sample size is small and the reported drop may well be random. Even if it's not, other effects may also be in play. Criminals, for example, might have been temporarily dissuaded from carelessly carrying guns in the few months after the court opened for business and received a lot of press. But the numbers have been encouraging to the city, which has expanded the coverage area of the gun court. As of early August, the court handles all of the borough's felony gun cases. New gun courts in the Bronx and Queens also started this year.
"We think it's a successful court," says Amy Feinstein, a chief assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Feinstein speculated that the creation of a specialized court has led to the increased sentences. Before specialization, the gun cases were mixed in with cases dealing with murders, sexual assaults, and other serious crimes. Many judges treated possessing a gun as a relatively minor crime compared to everything else they saw, and they were often inclined to give weapons offenders probation.
Also, before specialization, defense lawyers were able to forum-shop for lenient judges because different judges often handled the pretrial motions and the trials in the same case. If the judge assigned to pretrial motions didn't offer probation, the lawyer could request a trial and hope for a more lenient judge.
Gun court is only one of a growing number of specialty courts in New York. There's also a drug treatment court, domestic violence court, and a specialized court for handling cases of mentally ill defendants.
But gun court has none of the touchy-feely vibe of the other specialty courts in Brooklyn, where the focus is as much on social services as on the law, and where judges inquire about how defendants are getting along in their counseling programs, for example. In gun court, Del Giudice wasted no time asking defendants how they were doing at work or in school. On one summer morning this year, he warned defendants repeatedly that they were going to jailthe only question was for how long. That day, and every day, according to lawyers who practiced before him, Del Giudice's standard practice was to sentence most first offenders pleading guilty to a minimum of one year in Rikers Island. Repeat offenders got three years in an upstate prison.
For his part, Del Giudice said he decided each gun case individually. "No two cases are exactly the same," said the judge. Factors that entered into sentencing decisions included the defendant's age and whether the gun he possessed was a "street" gun or a family heirloom. The judge offered an example of a case where he didn't impose a one-year sentence. A defendant's deceased uncle legally owned a gun because he was a corrections officer. After the uncle died, the defendant was supposed to return the gun to the government, but instead, he held onto it. Del Giudice can't remember the exact sentence on this defendant, but said it was very close to what he gave Pringle: six months in jail followed by four and a half years' probation.
Because Del Giudice was such a tough sentencer, some defense lawyers were more inclined to advise clients to roll the dice in a trial involving a jury rather than plead guilty before the judge. In one such case, the veteran Weiswasser applied the lesson he had learned in the Pringle case. "If he put this young man in jail," said Weiswasser, "I just wouldn't take a chance he [would] give anybody probation."
Although Del Giudice is leaving the gun court, his legacy is likely to last. Two people who work with the courtFeinstein, the chief Brooklyn district attorney, and John Feinblatt, the city's criminal justice coordinatorsaid that they think Del Giudice has influenced other judges to give longer sentences. He may have influenced the selection of the next judge for the court too. Defense attorneys in Brooklyn say that Bruce Balter, who started on the court in September, is even tougher.