After decades of fighting crime on the streets, a rising tide of activists are waging the same war in a new battlefield: the courtroom. "When everyone gets a slap on the wrist, it eradicates the community," said one advocate, a Point Breeze resident with CeaseFirePA's CourtWatch program, as she attended a gun possession sentencing hearing last month. "That's what they've been getting away with because they say there's no one out there that cares. We need to show them that's not true. We want to send a message and take back our neighborhood."
Getting the roughly eight people to the Criminal Justice Center to send that message was a carefully orchestrated operation. CeaseFirePA workers scoured the informal citywide network of about 100 neighborhood observers they've created to find advocates from the 17th District, where Jerry Carver, 25, was arrested during a pedestrian stop last July and charged with drug possession and illegal firearm offenses.
Community Relations Officer Paul Bryson sent out his own email blast, marshaling residents to the South Philadelphia police station and driving them to Center City with the promise of breakfast on him. A supporter of CourtWatch, which encourages residents to put a human face on neighborhoods affected by gun violence by attending offenders' hearings, Bryson has invested a good deal of his own time finding the best way to reach out to possible participants. "With the violence in the city of Philadelphia, this brings people together to give life back to that community," he said. "Without the input of the community, judges don't know what affects neighborhoods – they don't live there."
CeaseFirePA director Max Nacheman said the CourtWatch program kicked into high gear about a year ago, thanks to the grassroots efforts of operations director Orla Treacy, who began recruiting advocates at community events, neighborhood watch meetings and even barbecues. "Anecdotally, sentences in similar cases go through the roof when people in the neighborhood come in," Nacheman said. "The judge sees the neighborhood wants to see a tough sentence. The final tweak is that judges in Pennsylvania are elected. This is starting to poke through their Teflon, showing them they can't get away with light sentences."
After the neighbors spent about two hours sitting on the hard wooden hall benches, waiting for the case to begin, a prosecutor poked his head out and let them know the defendant had not been brought down from federal custody – the hearing would be continued. The hiccup was not an uncommon occurrence, given the unpredictable nature and fluid start times of court proceedings. Undeterred, Nacheman snapped open a manila folder and asked those gathered, "Who wants to go to a straw purchaser sentencing?"
The community members dutifully filed down the hall, where Leslie Sampson, 28, was being sentenced for buying two guns and giving one of them to her recently-paroled boyfriend. He was subsequently shot by police while in possession of the weapon and is now a paralytic.
Nacheman said resource-strapped prosecutors now lean on CourtWatch, using participants' presence as a tool when petitioning judges. "They're here because they're sick of gun violence," Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock said as he made the state's case against leniency for Sampson, gesturing to the CourtWatch crew. "They're here because they're sick of seeing people getting away with it."
Despite her request for probation, Sampson, a Desert Storm veteran with no prior record, was sentenced to nine to 23 months in prison. "Do you get how big of a deal that was?" Nacheman later whispered in the hallway as the residents made their way to yet another hearing. "The judge acknowledged the community," he continued, raising his voice and addressing the neighbors. "It wouldn't have happened if you guys weren't sitting here."
By the time the day wrapped up more than eight hours after it began, the free breakfast promised by Bryson had turned into an early dinner. But the CeaseFirePA advocates, the neighbors, the police and the prosecutors were still clustered together, cracking jokes by the courtroom door.
Continuing the fight in Harrisburg
CourtWatch attempts to convince judges that the mere possession of an illegal firearm is an act of violence and offenders must be sentenced accordingly. "We generally come in for illegal sales and possession cases, not for shootings or murders, because the judge realizes that murder is a violent crime," Nacheman said. "We're trying to change the definition of violent crime. With a gun, a criminal is just one wrong look away from actually shooting someone."
CeaseFirePA has been advocating for legislation in Harrisburg automatically classifying illegal gun possession as a violent crime. As originally written, House Bill 2331 would have instituted a five-year minimum sentence for illegal gun possession. Though it passed the House of Representatives in the spring, the bill lost much of its teeth when it was amended during a state Senate hearing last week.
As it reads now, the legislation classifies a first-offense illegal gun possession charge as a second-degree felony and subsequent offenses as first-degree felonies with stepped-up sentencing guidelines, though prosecutors may consider mitigating factors such as whether the firearm was loaded. The language defining gun possession as a crime of violence along with murder, rape, assault, robbery and burglary was removed.
Some of CeaseFirePA's recent CourtWatch cases include:
Aug. 6 – Christian Hall, 24, was sentenced to five years in prison and two years of probation after pleading guilty to numerous counts of straw purchasing in Olney. The judge, citing the presence of the community members, said the strong sentence was due to the court's recognition of the danger that Hall posed to the neighborhood.
Aug. 17 – In CourtWatch's biggest victory yet, a judge resentenced Kevin Pickard, 26, to 17 to 34 years for injuring two children during a 2010 shootout in Southwest Philadelphia a mere week after she handed down the minimum sentence of five to 10 years. The courtroom was packed with about 70 community members and rows of police brass outraged by the initial light penalty.
Sept. 4 – Joshua Stokes, 25, was sentenced to 35 to 70 years for assault, intimidation, and weapons charges after shooting at a man in 2010, then threatening to kill the man's girlfriend who witnessed the shooting. The judge stated the "community doesn't need" all of the violence Stokes brings to it.
Sept. 12 – Leslie Sampson, 28, was sentenced to nine to 26 months for straw purchasing two guns in 2010. She gave one to her boyfriend, Carnell Williams-Carney, right after he was released on parole for armed robbery and, ten days after his release, he threw that gun during a foot pursuit and was shot by police, paralyzing him from the neck down. The judge cited the neighbors' presence in saying that, despite Sampson's claims she was a also a community activist, the community clearly felt otherwise.