By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
When U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett promised last year to ramp up the use of tough federal firearm laws to combat violent crime, he wasn’t kidding: The number of gun-related prosecutions brought by his office skyrocketed from 14 in 2010 to 117 in 2011.
His prosecutors are on pace for another banner year: Halfway through 2012, 43 people in the 60-county area that makes up the Southern District of Indiana have been indicted on 90 gun-related charges.
Many of the prosecutions involve felons in possession of a firearm — a crime that carries up to 10 years in federal prison.
Hogsett is using federal gun laws to go after what he called the “worst of the worst” — chronic troublemakers who he says have “used the state criminal justice system as a revolving door.”
He’s doing so with the blessing and cooperation of some local prosecutors who welcome the aggressive use of federal laws that often carry longer prison sentences than state law and — unlike in the state system — offer minimal opportunity for early release.
An example that Hogsett cites as evidence: The federal prosecution of a Terre Haute man, Brad “Pappy” Keller, a five-time felon who sold a gun to another felon who resold that gun to the man who shot and killed Terre Haute police officer Brent Long in July 2011.
“I have no doubt that while Keller has been sitting in jail, he was saying to himself, ‘Not only did I not shoot Brent Long but I didn’t even sell the gun to the guy who shot Brent Long ... I’m so far removed, what have I done wrong?’” Hogsett said.
It’s not a persuasive argument for Hogsett or for Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modisett, who went to the U.S. Attorney asking for his help. “Federal law often reaches where state laws can’t, or can’t reach as effectively,” Modisett said.
Keller was one of seven people prosecuted federally in the Long case and none of them was the shooter.
Long’s killer, Shaun Seely, killed himself after he fatally shot Long, who was attempting to serve a warrant on Seely for a federal probation violation. Five people in the house where Long was shot were charged federally with lying to police officers; a sixth, Scott Griffy, was charged federally with illegal possession and sale of the weapon used to kill Long.
It was Griffy, an ex-felon, who bought the gun from Keller, and then resold it to Seely. Griffy was sentenced to seven years in prison; Keller got 18 months. Both have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.
“I think justice required all those people be held accountable,” Hogsett said.
Hogsett has used the same approach — going after people who sell the guns to ex-felons who then used those guns to shoot police officers — in two other cases: The fatal shooting of Indianapolis police officer David Moore in January 2011, and the near-fatal shooting of Indianapolis police officer Dewey Runnels in December 2011.
Indiana does have a law that bars a “serious violent felon” from possessing a firearm, but Hogsett and Modisett said federal gun laws are more sweeping.
In the Runnels case, for example, the man accused of supplying the gun to Runnels’ shooter was charged with falsifying information on the paperwork required to purchase a gun. That’s a federal crime.
Hogsett has made it a priority for his office to go after people involved in police shootings; the U.S. Department of Justice nationally made it a priority in 2011, when there was a record number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
Hogsett is unapologetic for his aggressive use of federal gun laws to go after felons with guns.
“In a vast majority of these cases, we’re protecting the general public’s welfare,” Hogsett said. “There’s no question that a felon in possession of a gun is more likely to use a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime than any other demographic in our population.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com.