To curb gun crimes, start with more money, tougher laws and determination, experts say

Milwaukee community prosecutors Catelin Ringersma, left, and Bobby McQuay Jr. meet with a tenant during a “blight sweep” that prosecutors conducted in the city in 2018. Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather says he thinks stationing prosecutors in communities that struggle with crime - as Milwaukee and other cities have done - could help neighborhoods and build stronger criminal cases.

Over a span of two years, Jerrald Exum was accused of robbing two businesses — one in Mecklenburg County, the other in Cabarrus County.

In the 2015 Mecklenburg case, police said, Exum and another man entered a University City pharmacy, forced employees to the ground at gunpoint, and escaped with $5,000 worth of drugs.

Later, in neighboring Cabarrus County, police said, Exum was among three men who entered a sweepstakes gaming center, held customers at gunpoint and left with three cash registers containing $1,500.

The two cases bore similarities but were resolved in strikingly different ways.

Mecklenburg County prosecutors dismissed the robbery charge in the first incident, saying they could not conclusively prove that Exum was involved.

In the second case, Cabarrus County prosecutors pressed forward and won a conviction. Exum is now serving a prison sentence of at least four years and 10 months for armed robbery, possession of a firearm by a felon and other offenses.

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Jerrald Exum N.C. DPS

Prosecutors in Mecklenburg dismiss 68 percent of weapons charges, an Observer investigation found. In Cabarrus, prosecutors dismiss weapons charges in 23 percent of cases — the state’s lowest dismissal rate.

“We are tough on crime. And the criminals know it,” said Cabarrus District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven. “When they get caught with a gun in Cabarrus County, they aren’t happy about it.”

Interviews and records suggest that putting more resources into the courts — and more prosecutors in high-crime neighborhoods — would help authorities crack down on gun crimes. So would stronger laws, and making better use of those already on the books.

But determination helps, too, some prosecutors say.

Guilford County, whose largest city is Greensboro, has 34 prosecutors, compared to 86 in Mecklenburg. Yet Guilford consistently sends more people to state prison.

Howard Neumann, Guilford County’s recently retired chief assistant district attorney, said his prosecutors weren’t afraid to take violent crime suspects to trial, even in cases when prosecutors weren’t entirely confident they’d win a conviction.

“By doing that, you develop the reputation that you will try a hard case,” he said.

Here, experts say, are some of the ways North Carolina officials could fight gun crimes more effectively:

Boost court funding

For years, North Carolina’s courts have been among the nation’s most poorly funded, an Observer investigation found. Consider:

North Carolina has spent less per resident on its courts than any other state-funded system. That’s according to the most recent review of budget data, collected in 2012 by the National Center for State Courts.

Mecklenburg and Wake counties have fewer prosecutors than almost any other urban county their size nationally, an Observer survey found.

North Carolina has fewer trial court judges than at least nine smaller states, according to data compiled by the National Center for State Courts.

Processing more than 2 million cases a year, North Carolina’s courts have more crime than they can effectively handle, many involved in the criminal justice system say. Prosecutors, facing overwhelming caseloads, dismiss or plea bargain most charges, sending many suspects free.

North Carolina’s judicial system is state-funded, and the bulk of the money needed to run the courts comes from state income taxes and sales taxes.

Last fiscal year, the state spent about $550 million — 2 percent of its budget — on the courts. That amounted to a little over $50 per resident. Compare that to Kentucky, which spent more than $90 per resident on its court system, and Delaware, which spent more than $100 per resident.

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Former Mecklenburg County prosecutor Steve Ward jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

“It’s absolutely ludicrous that we fund the court system so poorly,” said Steve Ward, a former Mecklenburg County prosecutor who now teaches classes in criminal justice at Belmont Abbey College. “This is the third branch of government. The legislature is starving it to death.”

Twenty-five years ago, when Mecklenburg’s population was about half as large, the county had just two courtrooms that were regularly used for felony trials. Today? It still uses two courtrooms.

As a result, less than 1 percent of the more than 25,000 felony cases filed in Mecklenburg each year can go to trial.

“A lot of the time you’re making plea deals you wouldn’t ordinarily make because you don’t have enough court time to try all your cases,” said Bart Menser, who retired as Mecklenburg’s deputy district attorney in 2017, after 30 years with the office.

The funding shortages hurt those accused of crimes, too.

Overworked public defenders often can’t give their cases the attention they deserve. And a study conducted this year by the National Center for State Courts found that North Carolina needs 73 percent more attorneys and 223 percent more investigators to handle the current workload shouldered by public defenders.

That means that public defenders and prosecutors have little time to investigate cases, meet with clients and witnesses, and prepare for trial.

Said Mecklenburg Public Defender Kevin Tully: “Things aren’t done properly because things aren’t funded properly … The truth is everybody develops shortcuts to get things done.”

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Mecklenburg County Public Defender Kevin Tully jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

In North Carolina, the hefty caseloads and limited resources result in large backlogs. On average, it takes state prosecutors about 15 months to resolve weapons felonies, the Observer found. Thousands of cases drag on for more than two years.

Most states — along with the federal government — have speedy-trial laws specifying how quickly a trial must take place after charges are filed. North Carolina has no specific time frames.

Defense lawyers say the delays hurt many of their clients, particularly those who remain in jail while they await trial because they can’t afford bond.

“Obviously that’s an injustice,” Tully said. “Somebody is sitting in jail, not because their case isn’t ready for trial, but because there’s no time to try it.”

The delays can also prove dangerous to the public, prosecutors and police say. It often becomes harder for prosecutors to win convictions when cases are repeatedly postponed. As the months pass, key witnesses sometimes disappear or become unwilling to testify. Their memories become blurrier. Evidence goes missing.

Mecklenburg Deputy District Attorney Bruce Lillie said that victims who are initially willing to testify may become less willing over time, as their anger subsides. Other witnesses, he said, are nervous about getting involved.

Among the cases dismissed because of delays is an armed robbery charge against a southwest Charlotte man. Prosecutors threw out the charge in April 2017 — more than two years after he was accused of using a handgun to take a video game console from a 12-year-old boy.

In a court document explaining the reason for the dismissal, a prosecutor wrote: “Numerous attempts to contact the victim via his mother have been unsuccessful. Due to the age of the case and the inability to contact the prosecuting witness, there is little likelihood that the State could prevail at trial.”

McKinley Wooten, the interim director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, acknowledged that a funding shortage is hurting the criminal judicial system.

“The quality of the system is going to be challenged when we have a lot of unmet resource needs,” he told the Observer.

EDITORIAL: The Republican hypocrisy on NC’s gun crime crisis

Strengthen N.C. gun laws

Across the state line from Charlotte, York County’s top prosecutor knew he had an effective tool to combat criminals: tough prison sentences.

Those convicted of armed robbery in South Carolina must serve at least seven years in prison before they become eligible for parole. Compare that to North Carolina, where the minimum sentence for armed robbery is three years and two months.

“We frequently had people from North Carolina come to South Carolina to commit crimes,” said York County Solicitor Kevin Brackett. “... So they were surprised when they found out they were going to do 10 or 15 years for an armed robbery in South Carolina. And they’d be like, ‘...If I had known I would do that much time, I never would have come to South Carolina.’ ”

So about a decade ago, Brackett and his colleagues decided to put up a billboard along Interstate 77, at the state line. The billboard featured mugshots of criminals, along with their crimes, their prison sentences and a headline: “Don’t cross the Line!”

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To deter criminals from crossing into South Carolina, authorities posted this billboard along Interstate 77. Observer file photo

Some repeat gun criminals in North Carolina behave as though they have little to fear, police say. And that, some prosecutors, lawmakers and police officers believe, is partly because the state’s gun laws are too weak to deter crime.

To understand how North Carolina’s laws compare to those of other states, the Observer looked at the minimum prison sentences for armed robbery in nine other southeastern states. Seven of those states require longer minimum sentences than North Carolina. Four of the states impose a minimum sentence of 10 years — three times longer than North Carolina’s minimum.

Federal gun laws also carry far stiffer penalties than North Carolina.

Under North Carolina law, possession of a firearm by a felon is a lower-level felony, and those convicted can be sentenced to probation rather than prison.

Not so when the feds catch felons with guns — thanks to a tough federal sentencing law that calls for a minimum 18-month prison term.

In August, a U.S. District judge sentenced Aldrick Taylor, 21, to nearly five years in prison for possession of a firearm by a felon and intending to distribute marijuana.

Taylor had a long arrest record, but that was the first time he was sent to prison.

In 2015, he was charged with more than a dozen weapons crimes in state court, data show. A judge dropped two of the charges and he got got probation for two others.

Mecklenburg County prosecutors dismissed the rest, including two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

A bill sponsored in 2017 by former state Rep. Bill Brawley would have substantially increased the state court penalties for those convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon. U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray, Mecklenburg’s former district attorney, was among those pushing for the change.

The bill was weakened and then stalled.

But Brawley said he considers the legislation important to North Carolinians because gun violence increases when felons face few consequences for carrying guns.

“If there’s no penalty, why would they stop?” said Brawley, a Mecklenburg Republican who lost his seat in the 2018 election. “They’re felons. They won’t respect the law. What they’ll respect is going to jail.”

Tough law goes unused

In 2013, North Carolina lawmakers gave prosecutors a new tool for dealing with gun criminals.

It was the armed habitual felon law, and it called for a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for criminals who have a prior firearm-related felony conviction yet continue to commit gun crimes.

But prosecutors rarely use that provision, a Charlotte Observer investigation found. From 2014 through 2018, prosecutors in North Carolina filed 38 armed habitual felon charges. Just two resulted in convictions.

Through 2018, Mecklenburg County prosecutors used the charge nine times — and dismissed all of them.

Among those set free by the dismissals: Jamel Alexander, who has been convicted of four weapons crimes since 1996, records show.

In 2016, Alexander was charged with armed robbery — the third time he’d been accused of that crime. He was also charged with being an armed habitual felon.

But prosecutors dismissed the armed habitual charge, convicting him on two lesser gun charges instead.

Mecklenburg Deputy District Attorney Bruce Lillie said the only evidence against Alexander consisted of fingerprints on a bottle that was found on a store counter shortly after the robbery.

District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said prosecutors can often obtain tough sentences without using the armed habitual felon law. Using the charge also has a potential downside — having to prove the defendant is, in fact, an armed habitual felon in the second stage of a criminal trial, he said.

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Advocates for victims, however, question why prosecutors aren’t using one of the most powerful tools at their disposal.

“You don’t wait for someone to kill somebody before you get them off the streets,” said Judy Williams, a co-founder of Mothers of Murdered Offspring. “… Why have laws on the books if you’re not using them?”

Sen. Warren Daniel, a Morganton Republican, co-sponsored legislation that ultimately became the armed habitual felon law. Until informed by an Observer reporter, Daniel said he didn’t realize the law was rarely used.

Neither did former Sen. Jeff Tarte, who co-sponsored the legislation.

“What we’ve done is given them a tool to put an arrow in the quiver of justice,” said the Mecklenburg Republican, who was unseated in the 2018 election. “The question is now, ‘Are they being able to apply it?... And if not, why?’ ”

That’s not the only recent firearms law that the courts hardly use, the Observer found.

In recent years, the legislature also approved firearms “enhancements,” which allow the courts to increase the sentences of offenders if the jury finds that they used or displayed guns while committing felonies.

But the firearm enhancement was not applied to any felony convictions in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, according to reports by the North Carolina Sentencing Commission.

“Somebody across the state has been convicted of the crimes that enhancement should fit,” said Cheryl Jones, a board member of CharMeck Court Watch, which tracks repeat offenders. “It’s not a frivolous law. It was put in place to protect the general public and keep people behind bars a little longer. There’s no reason for not using that. None whatsoever.”

Put prosecutors in high-crime neighborhoods

Merriweather said that with more resources, the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office could try an approach that has proven effective elsewhere: stationing prosecutors in communities that struggle with crime.

When residents see that prosecutors are invested in their communities, they begin to trust them more, Merriweather said. As a result, he said, residents become more likely to cooperate with authorities when they witness crimes or become victims of crimes.

“It’s the same sort of thing people talk about with beat cops,” Merriweather said.

He pointed to Milwaukee, Atlanta and Santa Clara County, Calif., as three places where community prosecution is making a difference.

In Milwaukee, District Attorney John Chisholm said his community prosecutors don’t simply handle criminal cases — they go to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods to help solve community problems.

For instance, he said, prosecutors might work with neighborhood leaders to improve street lighting or tear down dilapidated buildings that criminals use.

“This is one way of changing the relationship between the DA’s office and the community we’re serving,” Chisholm said.

Milwaukee can afford to try such such approaches because it has more resources. Milwaukee County has about 13 percent fewer residents than Mecklenburg County, but 44 more prosecutors.

The state of Wisconsin pays the salaries of about two-thirds of Milwaukee’s prosecutors. The DA’s office has secured federal grants to cover the rest.

Free up court time for the most serious cases

In 1996, North Carolina lawmakers gave the courts a way to combat an overwhelming flood of felony cases.

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Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman Credit: Paulette Hill for the (Raleigh) News and Observer

Under a law passed that year, district courts, which usually handle misdemeanors, could also take pleas in thousands of lower-level felony cases. The change was designed to give the superior courts more time to resolve serious felony cases.

Mecklenburg County didn’t take advantage of the law. Here, superior courts still handle low-level felonies, adding to a logjam of cases.

Wake County did make the change.

Of the roughly 9,700 felony cases filed in Wake County in fiscal year 2018-19, more than half were lower-level felonies that were disposed of in district court.

“We have time to actually try cases in superior court,” Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.

From 2014 through 2018, Wake County prosecutors dismissed 45 percent of weapons charges, compared to 68 percent in Mecklenburg.


How we reported the story

In 2017, Charlotte witnessed a dramatic spike in homicides, along with a rise in gun crimes. Observer reporters wanted to know what was driving the violence. In early 2018, we began examining data on weapons charges across North Carolina. As we looked at how the justice system handled those charges, one fact stood out: Prosecutors in Mecklenburg County were dismissing almost seven of every 10 weapons charges more than any other urban county in the state.

Why does this matter? It’s important, experts say, because people who repeatedly avoid punishment for gun charges often go on to commit worse crimes. When we examined the criminal records of more than 12,000 suspects, we found that Mecklenburg prosecutors dismissed charges involving weapons 68 percent of the time.

We began by examining data — compiled by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts — on 58 charges that typically involve weapons. These charges include carrying a concealed gun, armed robbery and murder. Two-thirds of the charges were felonies.

In all, reporters reviewed 195,000 weapons charges that state courts resolved over the past five years.

We also found that police were charging some suspects with gun charges again and again. In fact, we found that more than 120 people in Mecklenburg County have been charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes over the past five years.

Then we examined the full criminal records of the nearly 300 people charged with murder in Mecklenburg County since 2015. We found that more than half of the murder suspects had prior weapons charges. Twenty-eight of the suspects would have been in prison and not free on the day of the murder they were charged with — if those charges had ended in convictions rather than dismissals.

We found patterns in the demographics of people charged with murder and those repeatedly charged with weapons crimes.

For example, of the 126 people who were charged with at least a dozen weapons crimes in recent years, 88 percent were black, 9 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were white. And 97 percent of those 126 people were male.

To fully understand the records of many suspects, we also examined thousands of pages of court documents.

We interviewed more than 100 people, including police officers, prosecutors, experts, lawyers and victims. We also interviewed some of the criminals themselves.

Merriweather said he would love to be able to handle lower-level felonies in district court — a step that he said would free up court time needed for more serious felonies.

But the decision is up to Mecklenburg Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller, and Merriweather said Miller told him he is not inclined to make that change. Miller refused the Observer’s requests for an interview.

Ames Alexander, an investigative reporter for the Observer, has examined corruption in state prisons, the mistreatment of injured poultry workers and many other subjects. His stories have won dozens of state and national awards. He was a key member of two reporting teams that were named Pulitzer finalists.