Special court tackles rise in gun arrests

In August 2006, Jeffrey Grand-Pierre gave Boston Police officers a workout. The 22 year-old suspect led police on a foot-chase down Washington and Dade Streets, tossing his Ruger .22 revolver before they caught up with him at Shawmut Avenue and Williams Street. Last month, the 22-year-old's case went to trial. Grand-Pierre was convicted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years for carrying a firearm.

The case is a typical example of the kind that go through what's been termed the "Gun Court," officially known as the "Firearm Prosecution Disposition Sessions," according to the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. In fact, most cases are disposed even faster than Grand-Pierre's, whose trial was delayed to allow an expert from California to testify on the defendant's behalf this fall.

The Gun Court is intended to fast-track simple gun possessions, cases where individuals who are accused of allegedly having a gun while being stopped on the street or while in a car, cases which Dorchester District Court sees regularly.

Someone charged with a shooting or found with large amounts of narcotics - such as the aunt of the slain seven-year-old Liquarry Jefferson who was found to have a .38 caliber gun and 100 grams of cocaine in her home - are more likely to go to Superior Court, according to Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley's office. The same goes for repeat offenders.

Appropriate cases from Dorchester, Roxbury, downtown Boston and the South End are routed to the Gun Court, which isn't a court at all, but simply a session and a judge. And starting next month, the court will expand its reach into more neighborhoods, including East Boston, South Boston and Charlestown. Wark said any additional costs for the Trial Court will be "negligible," since the cases are going from one court to another.

"We expect that this will bring about 100 additional cases into Gun Court each year in the future, and we expect to increase the staffing levels accordingly," Wark said in an e-mail. "It's an expansion that reflects the successes we've had thus far, as well as the dire importance of aggressively prosecuting gun crimes" in Boston.

"I think it's a good idea in that they're using available judges and courtrooms in the Central Division," said J. Lawrence Kelly, a Quincy defense attorney, referring to the Boston Municipal Court, near City Hall. "It's very positive when someone has a motion to suppress or go to trial that there'll be a judge and a pool of jurors."

While some defense attorneys grumble about the back-and-forth they sometimes have to deal with in shuffling between the downtown court and the respective district courthouses they are typically based out of, other lawyers say as long as there isn't a single dedicated Gun Court judge, that's fine with them.

There are about 10 to 12 judges assigned to the Gun Court.

"It's when you get into 'special judges' that I think the system breaks down," said Robert M. Solomon, a Melrose defense attorney who has handled "Gun Court" cases.

Others wonder whether the system is as efficient as it's made out to be. Earlier this month, Conley's office released 18 months worth of data, pointing to a conviction rate of more than 85 percent, from when the court first started in February 2006.

Out of 248 cases, a team of specifically designated prosecutors got 207 convictions, with 135 of those individuals serving 12 or 18 month sentences.

The backlog of cases in Dorchester, Roxbury and the Boston Municipal Court's Central Division has been eliminated and the average time it takes between the arraignment and end of a case has been cut in half to six months, according to the office.

Some defense lawyers point to an extended "discovery phase," the time it takes for ballistics, fingerprinting and other types of evidence-gathering to occur.

Other lawyers say there is little reason to expect the cases to resolve quicker than they normally would. "They can only shrink it down so much," Kelly said. "I think it's as successful as it's going to be in terms of shortening the time."

The Boston Municipal Court's Chief Justice Charles Johnson, who set up the court with Conley, could not be reached for comment.