Gun Court: 4 Year Progress Report

Edward W. Brooke Courthouse

Edward W. Brooke Courthouse

Conceived in 2005 by Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, the Suffolk County Firearms Priority Disposition Session, or “Gun Court,” is a specialized set of court proceedings dedicated to cases of firearms possession and collateral offenses. Defendants arrested on gun charges – as well as other charges such as drugs, assault-related offenses, or other crimes arising out of the same incident – are arraigned in the district court with jurisdiction and then have their cases routed to Gun Court sessions in the Central Division of the Boston Municipal Court Department.

District Attorney Conley conceived of the Gun Court after hearing from neighborhood residents who were not only concerned with escalating gun violence, but who also perceived a revolving door of justice through which those arrested for illegal gun possession were often back on the streets after posting relatively low bail while awaiting resolution of their cases. At the time, most gun cases took about a year – and often more – to resolve, a fact that undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system.

It was with this in mind that District Attorney Conley first approached Chief Justice Charles Johnson of the Boston Municipal Court Department with a plan to streamline and centralize the prosecution of gun possession offenses. The top priorities were to eliminate the large backlog of gun cases in the Dorchester and Roxbury divisions of the BMC and to reduce the period from arraignment to disposition by at least half, or to no more than 180 days. Dorchester and Roxbury courts were selected because they accounted for more gun cases than Suffolk County’s other seven district courts combined.

Achieving these ambitious goals required more than agreement between the District Attorney and the Trial Court, however. It required the close collaboration and cooperation of the Boston Police Department, whose officers were doing the dangerous work of taking illegal guns and those who carry them off the streets. District Attorney Conley approached then-Commissioner of Boston Police Kathleen O’Toole, who endorsed the idea. Later that same year, Edward Davis was appointed Boston Police Commissioner and the Gun Court has enjoyed his strong support ever since.

On Feb. 21, 2006, the first Gun Court session was held in the Central Division of the BMC. It was staffed by a team of four experienced district court prosecutors and one appellate prosecutor – the newly-created Gun Prosecution Task Force. During their first day in the new session, they handled four defendants’ cases; two of those defendants pleaded guilty that day, one as his trial was about to start and the other after his motion to suppress evidence was denied. Both received mandatory jail terms.

In late 2007, when it became apparent that the session was exceeding all expectations, District Attorney Conley and Chief Justice Johnson expanded the pool of district courts that would send cases to Gun Court. At the same time, prosecutors began to re-route those cases immediately after arraignment, rather than after the pre-trial hearing date. As a result, gun cases from the Dorchester, Roxbury, Charlestown, East Boston, South Boston, and Central divisions of the BMC are now routed to Gun Court for all intermediate court dates. And because they no longer compete for courtroom time with the tens of thousands of other cases resolved in district court each year – many of them much less serious – they can be resolved much more rapidly.

Beginning in 2008, members of the Gun Prosecution Task Force became the first in the nation to win firearms convictions based in part on thermal imaging technology. After developing doctoral fellows from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as certified expert witnesses in the field of heat transfer, they introduced as evidence images from the Bullard TI Commander, a thermal imaging device purchased by Boston Police that records heat the way a conventional camera records light. Gun Court prosecutors were able to link defendants to discarded weapons through the weapons’ residual heat signatures, winning convictions at a bench trial in 2008 and a jury trial in 2009.

Read the full report: Gun Court: 4 Year Progress Report
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