Prosecutors Drop Gun Case Against Webb Aide

Phillip Thompson had brought a gun into a Senate Office building.
Phillip Thompson had brought a gun into a Senate Office building. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007

Prosecutors yesterday dismissed the case against a top aide to Sen. James Webb who was accused of bringing a loaded pistol into the Russell Senate Office Building.

Phillip Thompson, executive assistant to Webb (D-Va.), had been charged with carrying a pistol without a license after Capitol Police found the loaded gun and ammunition March 26 during a routine screening of his briefcase. Thompson said that Webb owned the weapon and that he did not realize he was carrying it.

Jeffrey A. Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District, said in a statement late yesterday that his office concluded that the essential elements of the charge could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Among other things, lawyers said, prosecutors would had to have shown that Thompson knew he had the gun.

Filed in D.C. Superior Court, the dismissal ends an embarrassing episode for Webb, a gun rights advocate, and Thompson, a former Marine who has known Webb for years.

Thompson, 45, was entering the Russell Building when the gun and ammunition were discovered. Capitol Police seized the firearm and arrested Thompson, who spent a night in jail before his release.

The aide told authorities that the incident was a mistake and that he was "safekeeping" the gun for Webb. He also said he had inadvertently left it in a briefcase he was carrying for the senator.

Webb later confirmed that Thompson "inadvertently" brought the gun into the building, but he has been sketchy in providing further details. At one point, Webb declared his right to defend himself and his family from world dangers after the Sept. 11 attacks. Members of Congress and designated employees can bring unloaded guns into the Capitol, but Webb said he has never carried a gun into the Capitol complex.

In a statement yesterday, the first-year senator praised Thompson and applauded the decision to drop the gun charge.

"As I said at the time when this incident occurred, Phillip Thompson is a trusted aide and a fine man. I have great confidence in him," the statement said. "As I also said at the time, I believe that this incident was an inadvertent oversight and I am pleased that the authorities in the District of Columbia have now reached that same conclusion."

In announcing the decision not to prosecute the case, Taylor commended the Capitol Police for taking "swift action" and handling the case with "the utmost professionalism and dignity."

Terrance W. Gainer, Senate sergeant at arms, said, "We want to affirm that our officers took the proper action," adding that dropping the charge was "part of the system. I respect their prosecutorial decision."

But Lou Cannon, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, which represents the Capitol Police, was disappointed.

"I can't say it's political, but something that smells like a fish usually is a fish," Cannon said. "It sends mixed messages about whether there are double standards."

Richard E. Gardiner, defense attorney for Thompson, said he was told by the prosecutor on the case that a video recording of the incident had been reviewed and that statements had been taken from all of the officers present at the time.

"There was apparently complete unanimity that Mr. Thompson was totally stunned and clearly did not know that the gun was in there," Gardiner said.

The District has one of the nation's strictest gun laws, permitting only law enforcement officers to carry handguns in the city. Prosecutors have typically not accepted ignorance of the city law as a defense.

But defense attorneys not associated with the case said Thompson's situation is different.

"If they can't prove you knew the gun was there, then it's a defense," said Michael Starr, a defense attorney at the firm of Schertler and Onorato.

Billy Martin, a former senior prosecutor who is a partner at Sutherland Asbill and Brennan, said that the U.S. attorney's office is careful in gun cases and that the outcome in Thompson's case appears to be right. "It goes to the legal requirement of knowledge and intent," he said.

Gardiner, who was an attorney for the National Rifle Association for many years and is a leading advocate for gun rights, said he had not expected yesterday's decision.

"I'm surprised because generally prosecutors don't do that," Gardiner said. "But I'm pleased that there was at least one prosecutor in that office who looked at the law and looked at the facts and evaluated the case."

Gardiner said Thompson told him that he did not want to comment on the dismissal.

Staff writers Allison Klein and Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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