In 2001, the Baltimore state's attorney prosecuted 224 cases under a Maryland gun safety law. The number was incorrectly reported in a Feb. 26 Metro article about intensified prosecution of Baltimore and Prince George's County gun cases by the Maryland U.S. attorney's office. (Published 3/1/03)

The Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office will intensify its prosecution of gun possession cases from Prince George's County and Baltimore, the state's two most murderous jurisdictions, in an initiative similar to Virginia's Project Exile.

In a three-paragraph letter to the local state's attorneys, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio agreed to handle cases in which the suspect has a prior violent felony or serious drug conviction. Until now, those typically have been pursued under a Maryland statute that specifies minimum five-year sentences -- a tougher penalty than federal law would hand down. But the level of crime in Baltimore and Prince George's has overwhelmed prosecutors and the court system.

City and state politicians criticized DiBiagio much of last year for not accepting more weapons cases, though statistics show that more than one-third of his office's indictments involved firearms.

As first reported yesterday in the Baltimore Sun, he and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s legal counsel had talked recently about what more could be done. The addition of two attorneys to the office late last year enabled him to move forward, a spokeswoman said.

"We are constantly reviewing our federal firearms prosecution efforts to ensure that we maintain the most aggressive prosecution possible," DiBiagio said in a statement. He called the situation critical in Baltimore and Prince George's, two of the most violent jurisdictions in the nation, with a homicide rate more than 50 times that of other Maryland counties.

Virginia's Project Exile has been credited with taking armed criminals off the streets. Murder rates have declined, particularly in Richmond, but researchers have recently questioned the program's long-term success."Governor Ehrlich is extremely pleased with U.S. Attorney DiBiagio and is confident this is the first step of a multi-tiered effort to bring Project Exile to Maryland," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. DeLeaver said Ehrlich aides had been asking DiBiagio to make the move for several weeks.

In Prince George's, State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey welcomed the federal assistance. "We could use their help, frankly," he said yesterday. "We need all the help we can get."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, said the "resource-starved" office has been unable to handle the flood of cases eligible for the tougher sentencing under the state's Gun Safety Act of 2000, which expanded who could be prosecuted for felony firearms possession.

"It had a disproportionate impact on the city of Baltimore," she said.

Of 254 cases charged under the act last year, the state's attorney's office was able to obtain convictions in only 40 of them. Nearly a dozen cases a month now may be sent for federal review. "What makes this work is you have the threat of federal prosecution," Burns said. "Our prosecutors . . . are very excited."

DiBiagio's spokeswoman, Vickie LeDuc, said political pressures and censure had nothing to do with his decision. "Mr. DiBiagio's highly independent," she said.