Living in Exile by David Holthouse
are filling up with people
whose only crime is the possession of a gun.
by Westword March 21, 2002
Reprinted with author's permission.
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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'
"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
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."
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
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
"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,"
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
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."
Project Exile Archives
Project Exile Condemnation
Down and Out
A sampling of Project Exile convictions.