New Orleans gun crimes seen as leading cause of federal prosecutions

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More gun prosecutions are being brought in federal court in New Orleans than at any time in at least 15 years, a review by The Times-Picayune found.

Prosecutors across the 13-parish Eastern District of Louisiana brought about 70 new cases last year in which the lead charge was a firearms offense, according to information from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which keeps data on federal prosecutions. That’s the most since 2007, when the federal government stepped in to fill a void after Hurricane Katrina.

Carjacking was the lead charge in at least eight federal prosecutions over the past two years in the Eastern District, after none for four years, the TRAC data show.

Interim U.S. Attorney Duane Evans told The Times-Picayune that he set out in 2021 to increase prosecutions of “the worst of the worst,” including people repeatedly accused of crimes or accused of many crimes.

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Federal prosecutors made 61 requests to take over cases from Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams’ office last year, up from about 40 cases in 2021, said Assistant District Attorney Bob White, a liaison to federal prosecutors.

Williams welcomes the federal requests, White said.

“Federal agencies have much greater resources for investigation, location, and prosecution of suspects,” he said.

Evans said part of the decision includes considering whether someone is more likely to be jailed before trial in the federal or state system.

Claude Kelly, the federal public defender for the district, said the heavy volume of Orleans Parish cases going federal is a result of perceptions that “people won’t be prosecuted in Orleans Parish, or that judges won’t hold people in jail.” Federal weapons crimes also tend to carry stiffer sentences.

“I don’t recall ever seeing a year like this past one where such a high percentage of federal criminal filings are adoptions from state court,” Kelly said.

Nationally, federal gun prosecutions were down 11% last year. In the Eastern District, they were up 85%, in part a response to violence in New Orleans.

One issue is the increasing use of illegal devices that convert semiautomatic weapons into true machine guns. Kurt Thielhorn, special agent in charge in New Orleans for U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, called the rise in conversion devices “an enormous problem.” He echoed experts who say they’re prone to inaccurate sprays of bullets, at a rate of several hundred rounds per minute.

“Before, you might get six, seven rounds, or casings to retrieve,” he added. “Now, you’ve got shootings going off and there’s 30 or 40 casings on the ground.”

The lack of accuracy results in what Thielhorn called “spray and pray. They’re just spraying bullets hoping to hit their targets.”

Evans said his office may pursue 30-year minimum prison sentences under federal law for people caught using or carrying a machine gun.

Evans acknowledged that prosecuting more federal cases hasn’t reduced violence.

“The impact is minimal, if not nothing at all, due to the fact that fiscal year 2022, the murder rate went up,” he said. “We acknowledge that. But we are only one player. We by ourselves are not the solution.”

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