A highly touted initiative to reduce gun violence in Washington, D.C., has been scaled back and is under internal review by the District’s top prosecutor, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
More than two years after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and then-U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu announced an effort to shift many felony gun possession cases to federal court, where defendants face potentially stiffer sentences, the caseload has dropped significantly, according to court filings reviewed by the I-Team.
Amid rising concern about gun crimes in February 2019, Bowser and Liu publicly announced and promoted an initiative to more frequently prosecute felony gun possession cases in U.S. District Court rather than in the local D.C. Superior Court system.
“It’ll send a clear message that there will be swift accountability when someone is arrested (for being) felons in possession of guns,” Bowser said during a 2019 press conference.
Liu, a Trump Administration appointee who departed the position of U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia last year, announced in 2019 she was planning to bring all D.C. felony gun cases in the District by the end of that year.
“Every violent crime in this city is one violent crime too many,” Liu said during the press announcement of the initiative.
In the first year of the initiative, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted 129 felony gun cases in U.S. District Court, a sizeable increase from 2018. The caseload remained high in 2019, with approximately 80 cases. But federal records reviewed by the I-Team show a significant falloff in 2021, with just 20 cases filed between February and September.
In a court filing submitted in a federal case in March 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office told a judge the Justice Department was “engaged in a rigorous review of the felon-in-possession initiative’s value and impact.”
In the same filing, the agency said it intends to continue “to review and monitor the initiative’s impact and will consider if further modifications are necessary beyond those already implemented.”
The reduction in federal court prosecutions of D.C. gun possession cases shifts the current caseload back to D.C.’s local Superior Court, including at least 112 of them in the first six months of 2021.
In a statement to the I-Team, the U.S. attorney for D.C. said the Justice Department is committed to addressing violent crime.
The agency declined requests for an interview.
“We are among the partners in a major Department of Justice initiative launched this year to disrupt gun trafficking networks,” the statement said. “We are working on one of five cross-jurisdictional trafficking strike forces nationwide. We are working closely with ATF, MPD and other law enforcement partners to identify the origins of guns used in violent crimes in the District of Columbia.”
Bowser’s office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. During an unrelated public appearance Wednesday, Bowser said changes to the 2019 initiative are “absurd.” She declined to directly answer a question about whether she was briefed about a change in strategy by federal prosecutors but said she would have further discussions with them.
Former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner said the U.S. Attorney’s Office can provide justice for gun crime victims no matter whether cases are filed in federal or Superior Court.
“I understand the concern (about a policy change) because gun violence is as dangerous as crimes get in our community,” Kirschner said. "I do think, though, that they're being handled responsibly, whether in federal District Court or in Superior Court. There is an ebb and flow about prosecuting crime."
The internal review of the 2019 gun prosecution initiative is welcomed by organizations and local officials who opposed the policy. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said he prefers D.C.’s gun cases be prosecuted in Superior Court, because he said local judges have more flexibility in handling the cases.
“I think it’s a good thing cases are being brought to the local court,” Racine told the I-Team. “It’s a good thing they’re being brought to (face) local law, not federal law.”
Scott Michelman, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, also argues the District’s gun cases should be filed in Superior Court.
“It’s an issue of self-governance,” Michelman said. “It should be the District’s representatives and the District’s government making decisions.”
Michelman said the 2019 initiative puts much authority in the hands of a federal prosecutor, for whom District voters play no role in selecting.
At least some federal prosecutions continue, the I-Team found. In September, a federal jury convicted a D.C. man who had a history of gun charges when he was arrested for unlawfully carrying a gun on his waist in Southeast D.C. in August 2020.
In a separate case, a defendant faces sentencing this week for possession of a gun that prosecutors said was reported stolen from Orange County, California.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Lance Ing and Steve Jones.