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Records show half of all violent felon gun charges are dismissed

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Wilbur Morton was celebrating his 31st birthday at the Bu Da Lounge early on the morning of January 29 when a fight broke out at closing time on East Market Street.

A woman in Morton’s entourage was reportedly slapped by a man with another group. While a handful of women brawled in the street, the two men exchanged words and minutes later Morton was dead just three hours into his birthday.

After two weeks of painstaking police work, a review of social media and cell phone videos and repeated questioning of witnesses, Dantae Lamar Davis was arrested for Morton’s killing.

A year before, Davis’ attorney had convinced a judge to dismiss a serious violent felon gun charge against his client that might have kept the accused killer in prison at the time of the Morton murder.

A review of state, federal and local records indicate that serious violent felon charges are dismissed up to 50% of the time in the pursuit of justice.

“The SVF charge is very very seldom dealt away as part of a plea agreement,” said Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry. “If an individual’s been convicted of two specified felonies and still persists in possessing a firearm that those individuals we need to take them off the street.”

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana reports that more than 90% of the serious gun cases filed against defendants in U.S. District Court in 2015 and 2016 resulted in federal prison time.

Indiana authorities say that for the same time period, excluding non-reporting Allen and Elkhart Counties, prosecutors reported a slightly more than 50% success rate in serious violent felon and handgun without a permit felony cases.

Prosecutor Curry said Marion County’s statistics are similar.

“Our records indicate that we filed 381 serious violent felony cases,” said Curry after reviewing last year’s statistics. “Of those 381 filed in 2016, 273 are still pending at this point. 54 of them have resulted in guilty at this point to an SVF. One was not guilty and 44 were dismissed.

“Some of those were dismissed because they were transferred to federal jurisdiction. Two defendants passed away. Then any number of other ones that have circumstances such as more than one person was found in a vehicle that had a firearm in it.”

Defense Attorney Ralph Staples, who has beaten several SVF charges on behalf of his clients, said investigators tend to throw a wide net when several people are arrested in the vicinity of a gun and then wait for forensic results to pursue charges against the right suspect.

“I’m one of four guys in a car. There’s dope in the car. There’s a gun in the car. The dope belongs to somebody. The gun belongs to somebody, not all four of us.

“Two guys, four guys in the car, one gun. You’re rounding them all up and taking them over to the Marion County Jail. Now you have four guys in the Marion County Jail where there’s a realistic chance of convicting one of them.

“The old joke is, ‘Let God sort them out.’”

Chris Eskew successfully defended his client Dewuan Woods who was charged with SVF in 2013.

“Mr. Woods allegedly dropped a firearm at one point in time before being searched so we thought that was an illegal seizure. We thought the police were being a little overzealous in that case,” recalled Eskew. “We had a hearing and while that was being taken under advisement, the State and Mr. Woods worked out an agreement to a lesser charge.”

The SVF charge was dropped. Woods pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a handgun and received a four year prison sentence, which was less than the maximum 12 years he faced if convicted on the SVF charge.

Curry said that a killer’s handgun conviction would likely not add any prison time to the murder sentence.

“In some circumstances the serious violent felon charge would not add anything to the sentence and it would be imposed concurrent to the more serious conviction of murder or whatever,” he explained. “The unfortunate reality is that on occasion…a witness backs up, a suppression motion is granted, someone else takes the credit for having possession of it, we then have no choice, absolutely no choice in those circumstances, but to dismiss the case.”