A federal judge yesterday sentenced an Alexandria man to life in prison for the shooting death of a Treasury Department employee, one in a growing number of cases in which prosecutors are using tougher federal laws to target traditionally local crimes.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema imposed the sentence on Joseph E. Williams for last year's execution-style slaying of Gail Collins, 48, his neighbor. No gun was ever found and there were no witnesses, making it difficult to prosecute Williams on state murder charges.
But because Williams, 46, had three convictions for armed robbery, he fell under a federal statute that made him an "armed career criminal." A federal jury convicted him on two firearms counts and made a special finding that Williams used a gun to kill Collins during a robbery.
Defense lawyer Michael Lieberman objected vehemently. Noting that Alexandria's chief prosecutor was in the courtroom as a spectator, Lieberman suggested that the judge didn't have a right to impose any sentence at all. "I don't believe it is the place of this federal court to sentence Mr. Williams for a state crime," he said.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said Lieberman and other defense lawyers who oppose the federal tactic were whining. "What would these lawyers say to crime victims? . . . If there's a federal law that should apply, it should definitely be used," he said.
Federal laws are being increasingly used nationwide in a variety of cases once left to local authorities. Much of the trend is being driven by Project Safe Neighborhoods, a Bush administration initiative that subjects criminals who use guns to tougher federal sentencing laws and helps local authorities fight gun crime. It is partly modeled on Project Exile, a Virginia program begun in 1997 to crack down on gun violence in Richmond.
Since 2000, federal gun-crime prosecutions have risen 76 percent, Department of Justice figures show. The Eastern District of Virginia, which includes Alexandria, Richmond and about half the state, has the largest number of firearm defendants in the country.
But the heightened federal role can be seen in more than just gun cases. This week, a federal grand jury in Alexandria indicted two members of the violent Mara Salvatrucha street gang on charges stemming from the slaying of a Herndon teenager, part of an increasing use of racketeering laws to combat gangs.
Federal authorities in Alexandria prosecuted former naval intelligence officer Jay E. Lentz for the 1996 disappearance of his former wife, which had been investigated as a state murder case. And federal prosecutors also recently joined the investigation into another of Alexandria's four slayings in 2003, the shooting of Nancy Dunning, wife of Alexandria Sheriff James H. Dunning.
Some defense lawyers see the growing practice as an accumulation of federal power that usurps the traditional role of local authorities. "The prosecution of crime belongs in state court, with some rare exceptions," said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond lawyer who is on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel said he was happy to turn the Williams case over to federal prosecutors. With insufficient evidence to prosecute for murder, an Alexandria grand jury initially indicted Williams on a charge of possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The maximum penalty was five years in prison.
So Sengel called McNulty's office, which has a prosecutor, Patrick F. Stokes, dedicated specifically to Project Safe Neighborhoods cases. "It became apparent that the federal statutes allowed for a much greater sentence," Sengel said yesterday after the sentencing. "It seemed intuitive that the best place for the case to go was federal."
Collins's body was found in her Alexandria apartment on March 21, 2003. She had been shot once in the head about 10 days earlier. Her body was lying on the floor in a position that indicated she had been kneeling at the side of her bed, court documents said.
Prosecutors argued at the trial that Williams had extorted the personal identification number of Collins's ATM card from her at gunpoint before pulling the trigger. She and Williams were neighbors, and she relied on him to do occasional errands around her apartment, prosecutors said.
The investigation showed that Williams had Collins's bank card March 12 and that the card was used to withdraw $580 from her account. Prosecutors said Williams, whom they called a notorious crack addict, used the money to buy crack.
A federal jury in September convicted Williams on two counts: being a felon in possession of a firearm and possessing a firearm while being an unlawful drug user. Even though no gun was found, a bullet was recovered from Collins's body, and witnesses said they had seen Williams with a 9mm pistol, the same type of gun that killed her.
Yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik R. Barnett said the legal arguments about federal jurisdiction should be saved for a higher court. "This was a woman who was a completely innocent victim," he said. "But for the fact that her life happened to cross paths with Mr. Williams, she would be alive today."
Asked by Brinkema if he wanted to comment before sentencing yesterday, Williams declined. Michelle Collins, the victim's sister, told the court that Gail "had a good heart and a good spirit."
"I want Mr. Williams to know that my family is a forgiving family," she said through tears. "Our prayers are for him."