As authorities launched an aggressive search for the killers of Laylah Petersen, the 5-year-old Milwaukee girl who was shot twice in the head while sitting on her grandfather’s lap inside her own home, one of the alleged murderers was already in gun court: For another shooting that occurred the month before Laylah was slain.
Carl L. Barrett, Jr., 20, allegedly shot 31-year-old Richard Stewart as he walked down West Hampton Avenue, court documents say. Stewart, wounded in the left ankle, dripped blood as he ran into a store. Barrett and another man were allegedly angry at Stewart because of an old feud that resulted in a stabbing. Laylah’s shooting also allegedly resulted from another round of street justice all too common among gun offenders in Milwaukee; Barrett and a co-defendant were allegedly upset that a third man was acquitted in another homicide, and shot up the wrong house.
A month after Laylah died, Barrett was charged in the Stewart shooting, as authorities hunted for the girl’s then unknown killers and the community convulsed in outrage. Stewart’s shooting barely made the news, although non-fatal shootings are far more common than homicide; he was one of 582 people shot in Milwaukee that year who didn’t die. Such non-fatal shooting cases often end up in a specialized court dealing with firearms offenders: Gun court.
Released on $10,000 cash bail on electronic monitoring in the Stewart shooting case (higher than the $5,000 median bail in gun court) after a jury trial fell through, Barrett repeatedly defied pretrial supervision rules, administered through a non-profit called Justice Point that contracts with the county, Media Milwaukee found (the same non-profit under fire for its handling of juvenile auto thieves). In April 2015, Barrett violated pretrial supervision, and the judge ordered him to take a drug test, which he failed. “Court takes no further action,” records say. Just over two weeks later, the judge, Thomas McAdams, lightened Barrett’s supervision by removing him from GPS monitoring. In July, Barrett failed another drug test, but McAdams, a former prosecutor, only “admonished” him.
In September 2015, with Judge Frederick C. Rosa now taking over gun court from McAdams, Barrett violated pretrial supervision yet again, and, yet again, he was merely admonished. And so, the Stewart case bogged down in court, until Laylah’s alleged killer was finally charged with her murder in October 2015. Indeed, he’s now been joined by his own father behind bars – the elder Barrett was charged in another, unrelated homicide case this spring, a prosecutor confirms.
What unfolded in Barrett’s gun court case is not very unusual, save for the high profile nature of Laylah’s killing, a five-month Media Milwaukee investigation into Milwaukee County’s gun court found. Indeed, a pattern of defendants – even felons who have shot at people or are drug dealers – bail out quickly on a few thousand dollars (median bail in gun court: $5,000), commit new crimes as their cases languish for months (sometimes very serious ones), defy pretrial supervision rules with little more than a judicial scolding (sometimes repeatedly), and often escape lengthy sentences at the end, with about 40 percent avoiding prison time now (not counting stayed terms). Five of the defendants in gun court in less than a year studied were previously convicted of homicide in Wisconsin, Media Milwaukee found. Two gun court defendants were charged with new homicide counts while their other gun court cases were still pending, including Barrett.
Gun court operates with enormous racial and gender disparities – more than 90 percent black, more than 90 percent male, higher than disparities in homicide suspects and victims – and a strong nexus to the city’s illegal drug trade. More than 40 percent of the gun court offenders had past drug records. There are also cases, though, in which defendants in gun court appear to be making sincere attempts to improve their lives, including by obtaining schooling, or who have suffered poverty or abuse. In at least one case, there’s strong evidence a man spent months behind bars but did not do the crime. And those are just the cases that are charged in the first place; the DA’s spokesman says the office charges about 62 percent of firearms cases brought over by police.
Altogether, three UW-Milwaukee student journalists, Emily Zantow, Pakou Lee, and Rebecca Papenthien (read more about the student journalists here), reviewed 550 cases that had in-court activities before the judge, Rosa, currently assigned to Milwaukee County’s gun court from August 2015 to the end of March 2016 (there were over 700 total cases that cycled through). They obtained the data through an open records request. Almost all cases involved different defendants, although a few were the same defendants with different cases. Of the cases reviewed, more than 360 had reached conviction or dismissal. The oldest case was charged in 2014; length of time matters because it often means serious offenders remain on the streets after bailing out on a few thousand dollars, sometimes to reoffend (Media Milwaukee found at least 90 cases in which gun court offenders had new charges filed after their gun court case). A few cases didn’t involve firearms at all, but most did. If a case appeared before the gun court judge more than once, the student journalists only counted it one time. Cases that pass through gun court include non-fatal shootings (charges like reckless injury, attempted homicide, discharging a firearm toward a vehicle and first-degree recklessly endangering safety), although there were also many weapons possession cases on the list (like felon in possession of a firearm). As of October 2015, the latter are divided among general felony courts. Homicides go to another court. Various different judges handled some sentencings in the cases studied.
For example, one Milwaukee man, charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, violated pretrial supervision at least 8 times after being released on $2,500 bail. “Court takes no action,” the records repeatedly say, from both McAdams and Rosa.
The month before the felony charge, the man was accused of misdemeanor disorderly conduct, but the case was tossed out when the prosecution declared it could not proceed. Why was he a felon? In 2011, he was convicted of possessing a short-barreled shotgun/rifle and given 120 days in the House of Correction by Judge Charles Kahn.
In the felon in possession of a firearm case? The judge sentenced him to 90 days in work-release jail and probation (with a stayed sentence he doesn’t have to serve unless he messes up again).
The man’s Facebook page is filled with photos of wads of cash, what appears to be drugs, and even guns. In 2009, his father’s body was found buried in a basement, riddled with gunshot wounds. It remains a cold case. Two years before, the man was one of the plaintiffs in a major lawsuit alleging Milwaukee children were being poisoned by ingesting lead paint. One photo on the man’s Facebook page shows him holding what appears to be a gun (Media Milwaukee has cropped out his face, above).
Although the state has enacted new mandatory minimums for some weapons offenders, many in Milwaukee County’s gun court docket would not have been affected if the law had existed when they were charged, the investigation found; however, median and average sentences were lower than mandatory minimums.
Sentences are even lighter in neighboring Waukesha County, though, where there is much less gun crime and charges are often less serious; a much higher percentage of gun offenders often gets slapped with merely a fine or probation and sent on their way, the investigation revealed. In some cases, prison wasn’t available to Waukesha County judges because the charges were only misdemeanors, but even in cases that included felony charges, Waukesha offenders mostly avoided prison in the sample studied. For comparison purposes, the students also studied a sample of concealed carry and felon in possession of a firearm charges and recklessly endangering safety with a dangerous weapon charges that were filed in Waukesha County in 2015 (that county does not have a gun court).
Among the key Milwaukee findings:
- In about one-fourth of the cases that have reached completion, all charges were dismissed. If you remove cases that were dismissed because the offenders were sent to federal court, about one-fifth resulted in all charges being dismissed. The reasons run the gamut, from victims or witnesses not cooperating to judges suppressing evidence, lack of probable cause, lack of a timely filed information, discovery issues, disc retrieval problems, DNA testing issues, and a few jury acquittals. In 19 of those dismissed cases, defendants have already been charged with new crimes, including heroin dealing, child abuse, discharging a firearm toward a vehicle, recklessly endangering safety, and armed robbery. (A few of those cases were dismissed because the prosecutor wanted to reissue charges or pleas were negotiated in other cases.)
- In about half of the sentenced cases, the offenders received prison time (that wasn’t concurrent to other sentences.) If you include prison time concurrent with other cases, about 60 percent received prison time overall.
- That means that, in about 40 percent of the sentenced cases, the offenders received jail terms, probation, community service or a fine (sometimes with stayed prison terms they will only have to serve if they mess up).
- In about 27 percent of the sentenced cases, offenders received jail time in the House of Correction.
- In about 12 percent of the sentenced cases studied, offenders received probation (again, often with stayed prison or jail time they won’t have to serve unless they mess up). About 40 percent of the probation cases were offenders charged with being felons in possession of a firearm. Other cases in which probation was ordered include cases in which defendants were convicted of possessing a firearm as an adjudged delinquent in juvenile court, furnishing a firearm to an unauthorized person, robbery with use of force, drug dealing, and second-degree recklessly endangering safety. In some of the probation cases, offenders had violated pretrial supervision.
- For example: One of the felons who received probation was an alleged gun and drug dealer from Illinois caught in a shop the city tried to close due to excessive calls to police. He allegedly touched an AR-15 in front of a police officer. In addition to probation, Judge Jeff Conen also gave him community service, stayed prison time, and stayed jail time to be used at discretion of the court and probation agent for the felon in possession of a firearm conviction. The man had repeated pretrial supervision violations, court records show.
- Two men convicted of being felons in possession of a firearm received fines. In one of those cases, Judge Stephanie Rothstein sentenced the man to pay a fine and do community service (and, as in many cases, stayed other jail time he will only have to serve if he messes up). The judge ordered a review hearing, found the defendant had in fact performed the community service, and kept the jail time stayed. That 42-year-old man was previously convicted of felony drug possession and of improper use of a firearm.
- Judge Dennis Cimpl ordered a 40-year-old convicted drug dealer to pay a fine in $100 monthly installments for being a felon in possession of a firearm:
The median time behind bars that Milwaukee County gun court defendants were sentenced to serve now: 1 year. The average: 2 years. Gun court sentences can be extraordinarily complex. The numbers are meant to represent how much confinement time, whether prison or jail, defendants received in their gun court case (for all charges in it combined) that they wouldn’t have been serving anyway or that wasn’t stayed; defendants only have to serve stayed sentences if they mess up again, and concurrent time is served at the same time as sentences in other charges or cases, so those were counted as zero. Extended supervision was not added to the totals.
However, even if you count sentences in which the defendants’ time behind bars was concurrent with other cases toward the median and average, the numbers jump only slightly. The median jumps to 18 months confinement time (either prison or jail for all charges in a case combined), and 27 months on average.
|12||Median sentence with concurrent time to other sentences counted as zero, in months.|
|24||Average sentence with concurrent time to other sentences counted as zero, in months.|
|18||Median sentence with concurrent time to other cases included, in months.|
|27||Average sentence with concurrent time to other cases included, in months.|
The median sentence for gun court defendants in cases in which safety was endangered (offenses such as recklessly endangering safety, first-degree reckless injury, and discharging a firearm from vehicle, etc.): about 3.5 years. The average sentence: 4.5 years. That counts concurrent time to other cases; without it, the median is the same and the average slightly less.
Median bail in cases where safety was endangered (for example in shootings or gun discharges or pointings instead of say, a felon just possessing a weapon) was $10,000. The average was double that. Median is a better representation usually of the typical because average can be skewed upward by a couple uniquely high cases.
Median bail for cases with a felon in possession charge was right at the $5,000 median and just over $10,000 average. However, those charges are often accompanied by others. To look at felon in possession cases more closely on their own, Media Milwaukee also filtered out all cases in which felon in possession of a firearm was the only charge. In that subset, median bail dropped to $3,000 and average bail just under $5,000. Median and average sentence were both about 1 year (prison or jail) not counting sentences concurrent to other cases, and just over 1 year median sentence and just over 15 months average when counting sentences concurrent to other cases. For those convicted in cases with only a felon in possession of a firearm charge or charges, about 45% did not receive non stayed prison time (meaning they received probation, jail or fines). About 40 percent did receive prison, and the rest received prison time concurrent to other cases.
In one example with a sentence fitting the norm, a 22-year-old defendant was sentenced in May by Judge William Pocan to a year in the House of Correction for being a felon in possession of a firearm and resisting an officer. In July 2014, he had received 10 months in the House of Correction for possessing a short-barreled shotgun but failed to report, court records show. His Facebook page contains comments such as, “I’m to (sic) damn high can’t wait till bday snow stop need blunts” and “Click click click click click yall no da rest.”
The students also looked for racial disparities and found that white defendants received slightly longer median sentences but shorter average sentences than African-American offenders when concurrent time was not counted, and the same median sentence but shorter average sentences when it is counted (median can be a better barometer of the “typical sentence” because, with averages, a few aberrant long sentences can skew the total.)
One local defense attorney who has appeared frequently in gun court said that Wisconsin has a speedy trial rule, and defendants bail out when it’s not satisfied because the court system is so busy. When defendants do bail out, their cases are often delayed more, leaving them on the streets.
“When people are out on bail, those cases tend to sit longer because especially in gun court, it’s a very busy place, and they do trials frequently,” said defense attorney Jeff Guerard. “So, most of the trials they do, they’re obviously the people sitting in jail they wanna get done first, ’cause those people are in custody, and they should get those done first. The ones who are out on bail typically get pushed back and back, and back until you finally get a trial date.” Sometimes defendants might have a probation hold from another case, so they don’t get out even if they could meet bail in the gun court case.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s spokesman says the system in Milwaukee County is working overall, despite the many challenges; the DA’s office is dealing with rising complaints of victim and witness intimidation that compound prosecutions, a busy court calendar, short staffing, and must also rely on the type of cases that police forward against the backdrop of a segregated city with enormous racial disparities in victimization and poverty.
“We don’t have a perfect criminal justice system, but I do think we have a very good one,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern, the spokesman for DA John Chisholm.
The court also operates in a landscape flush with guns if people want them, including felons, who don’t find them tough to obtain on the black market and a state concealed carry law that allows some habitual criminals to qualify. Guns are “really available out there to anybody that wants one,” said Rosa, who is currently the judge presiding over Milwaukee County’s gun court.
“…The one thing I hear in here typically is, ‘I need the gun for protection’ or ‘Things are crazy in the streets’ or ‘I’ve been the victim of a crime’ or whatever…You have people who have a dispute or an altercation, there’s a flash of anger, and out come the guns.”
Failed drug tests
When people come out of the court system, they bring their whole lives with them, Rosa said, so it’s not surprising to him that people test positive for drugs while on pretrial supervision; however, he is concerned. Failing drug tests is not the only way gun court defendants violate pretrial supervision, either; the cases in gun court are replete with examples of defendants violating GPS rules or blowing off contacts.
Before being elected as a judge in 2004, Rosa was a family court commissioner, a child support enforcer, and a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee.
“We tell people to stop, but we don’t offer treatment or assistance or direct them to appropriate programs,” he said. “If you have a system where you can get them treatment or something, that would improve outcomes significantly.”
In at least 87 cases in the Media Milwaukee investigation – or 16 percent of those studied – offenders violated pretrial supervision, by failing drug tests, violating GPS rules or missing office contacts, but little usually happens when they do. The Media Milwaukee study included some cases filed in 2016, giving some offenders little time to mess up. Also, some gun offenders remain incarcerated; however, many do not; median bail in the 550 cases studied was $5,000 (average bail was almost $12,000; sometimes bail is amended up or down; the median and average represent the initial bail amount set).
The pretrial supervision program is one of the many programs run by Justice Point, a private non-profit organization designed to enhance public safety. So how does the process really work? To find out, a phone call was made to Justice Point, and Media Milwaukee reporters were directed to numerous staff members, but calls were not returned. Next, an open records request was sent to the Milwaukee County Court system’s judicial operations manager for pretrial services requesting the overall number of defendants who tested positive for drugs or otherwise violated pretrial supervision. She forwarded Media Milwaukee to the chief deputy clerk of Circuit Court, who said no such records exist.
However, Media Milwaukee located a Milwaukee County 2016 pretrial services report that said that, in 2015, 21,153 drug tests were conducted in the pretrial supervision program and approximately 4,571 (22 percent) were positive drug tests. Those numbers include more than gun court. Out of the 4,571 positive tests, 38 percent were for marijuana, 5 percent for marijuana with another substance and 62 percent for another narcotic. The organization’s tax form shows over $4 million in expenses and revenue.
As it turns out, problematic cases are not altogether atypical. The investigation also found:
- In about 90 cases – or 16 percent – defendants were charged with new crimes after their case was filed (in many other cases, the gun court case was itself the new crime, as the defendants had earlier still open cases. Some of the new charges were for crimes committed previously but not charged until now; others were new offenses committed while the case was pending before gun court.)
- In two cases, defendants in the gun court were charged with new counts of murder (felony murder, first-degree reckless homicide) and one was charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree intentional homicide, in an alleged plot to murder a witness that was thwarted. The latter defendant had been released on $250 for allegedly maintaining a drug house. In at least 18 cases, gun court defendants were charged with new drug offenses, including heroin dealing. Other new charges filed after the gun court case included firearms offenses (at least 21 of those), child abuse, recklessly endangering safety, and sexual assault. In some of those cases, defendants had violated pretrial supervision with little consequence.
- For example, in one case, a man charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and drug dealing was also charged with bail jumping and drug possession while his case was still open. On June 13, four days after a Justice Point GPS violation in the gun court case, and after the new offenses, the judge, Carolina Stark, amended the man’s bail to allow him to go to the park for a picnic and to go to the pharmacy to pick up verified prescriptions. His original bail was $2,500. The man repeatedly failed drug tests before his new arrest, but was merely admonished by the court or his bail upped by small amounts, eventually reaching $8,500. His bail in the new case? $500 on two felony charges. In 2014, the man was allegedly caught by Racine police for transporting marijuana from Chicago, but the case was dismissed
- There is a pattern of increasing witness intimidation in Milwaukee County, making it difficult for prosecutors to make some charges stick, an issue that appears less prevalent in Waukesha County.
- In about 31 percent of the resolved cases, some charges were dismissed while others led to conviction, usually the result of plea bargaining. Defendants were convicted of all charges in their case in about 42 percent of the time.
- Waukesha County often dismisses the gun charges in plea agreements that result in convictions for other things, often drug offenses. There were fewer cases in which all charges were dismissed, and fewer instances of pretrial supervision problems. However, most Waukesha County weapons defendants in the sample studied received a fine, probation, or a short stint in jail; offenders getting only fines and probation was much more common in the Waukesha sample. The offenders also had less serious records, though, as a whole.
- Median age of a Milwaukee County gun offender was 27 (average age 28).
- Milwaukee County gun crime offenders almost entirely live on the city’s north side, according to a Media Milwaukee analysis of the zip codes of their home addresses. The top zip code, 53206, accounts for about 14 percent of the offenders in the study. That zip code is also Milwaukee’s most impoverished, and only about one third of young males are employed, according to previous media accounts.
- In Milwaukee County gun court, 96 percent of defendants were from the City of Milwaukee. In Waukesha County, it was less geographically concentrated; about two times as many were from Waukesha County as Milwaukee County, though.
The student journalists filed open records requests and attended Milwaukee gun court off-and-on for weeks. They interviewed everyone from a pastor to a barber, from attorneys to defendant family members, from a judge to inmates, even conducting jailhouse interviews. Gun court presents a microcosm of the challenges afflicting Milwaukee, which include multi-generational criminality and poverty. This April, another Carl L. Barrett was charged with first-degree reckless homicide and being a felon in possession of a firearm in Milwaukee.
“To my knowledge, they are father and son,” the prosecutor, Grant Huebner, told Media Milwaukee when asked whether this Carl L. Barrett is related to Laylah’s alleged killer.
The older Barrett, a convicted armed robber, is accused of murdering a man in a gun battle over an argument about his girlfriend. In some cases, the men in gun court today are the offspring of the men who perpetrated violence in Milwaukee’s crime heyday of the early 1990s, as crime spiked to record highs when crack cocaine hit and the city’s manufacturing base declined. Sometimes, those older Milwaukee men are just cycling back through.
In yet another case, an old news story reported that the father of one gun defendant was murdered at age 17 while walking down the street in gang colors on his way to buy ketchup. The boy’s mother disputed he was in a gang, saying he received good grades and liked to play basketball after the family migrated to Milwaukee from Mississippi. The story noted that the teenage murder victim left behind a 2-month-old son. That son, now 21, and a convicted robber, was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and throwing bodily fluids on a safety worker; the charges were dismissed because he was sent to federal court. In 2014, a suffocation charge was dismissed when the witness failed to appear.
Social media braggadocio
There is definitely a new-age way to “flaunt” criminal activity now that was not available to gun offenders in the early 1990s, though. It’s fairly common to find defendants who posted pictures on social media with their stacks of hundreds or 20s or bags of weed laid out in an apparent quest for peer-group status, in some cases guns in hand, and updates that talk about their “hustle.” One wrote, “Everybody want to be a drug dealer around tax time lol.” Occasionally, they post a photo array in memory of a slain friend or relative. It might sound somewhat stereotypical, but this is what a lot of them portray on social media.
Said another: “Started working on Milwaukee Public Streets.” Many easily intersperse braggadocio about the ease, riches, and allure of street life with lamentations on fatherhood or relationships and, sometimes, hip hop careers. Although images can be deceiving, at least on Facebook, many of these young men with their flashy tattoos and gold grills don’t look like the downtrodden, jobless lot they are often portrayed as: They look like they are having a lot of fun, driving spruced up cars, and getting a lot of attention from young women. And, according to what they post on social media anyway, they are making a lot of money.
On the other side of the coin, though, the defendants’ files are replete with examples of substance abuse, mental illness, moments of poor judgment, childhoods of poverty and poor family role models, including fathers who are themselves convicted gang members, killers, or murder victims. One defendant wrote about checking herself into a substance abuse program at the hospital, saying, “At this point, things can only get better for me. I will no longer let drugs drag me down.” She was the rare defendant who received a deferred prosecution agreement, meaning the case is ultimately dismissed if she abides by a treatment plan; she was also one of the few female defendants (as a whole, women gun offenders get far less time).
Root issues and community solutions
Throughout the community and system, people are working on the root problems that can lead to criminality in the first place. One of those people is Gaulien “Gee” Smith, who owns Gee’s Clippers, a basketball themed barbershop on Martin Luther King Drive in Milwaukee. In the early morning, around 9:30 a.m., the place is already filled with customers getting their hair cut by staff members with black-and-white striped shirts. Hip hop music blasts in the background as television sets placed high on the walls screen basketball games. Gee wears a black-and-white striped referee uniform shirt, as he leans back in a black leather barber chair with a comb tucked in his shirt pocket.
“It’s tough now. It’s rough now. It all stems from the family breakdown,” he told Media Milwaukee.
After noticing many children were being raised in single-parent households, Gee started a Boy Scout troop that now has 10 leaders and over 20 boys.
“You can only blame so much on that child. That child is only going to be so much better than his or her surroundings,” said Gee. “So what do we do? We’ve got to try to improve the surroundings. So we’ve got to have community hubs like a barbershop fill that void, do whatever the community organizations can do, ya know, to fill that void. Because we know that it’s there. We can only turn our heads so much. I mean, I know it’s tough sometimes approaching that youth that’s in that gas station or that grocery store that’s headed down the wrong direction… But I never, ever, ever just turn my head to a situation like that. I say, ‘Bro, bro, bro is that really necessary? I mean, bro, come on, man, I know your mom, your grandma, your grandpa, some adult loves you. They wouldn’t accept that, man.’”
Pastor Ken Hughes of Faith Harvest Outreach is also working to stop crime on the front end. He encourages Milwaukee youth to join his church. He feels he owes it to the community.
“I’ve gotta go back to the same neighborhood that I tore up selling drugs, robbing, stealing. and I’ve got to educate them and build that same community,” he told Media Milwaukee. “And a lot of people say, ‘Well, when you go to prison, you pay your debt to society’ – that’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard. You pay your debt for the crime you did. The way you pay your debt to society is to go back to that society and build it.”
Faith Harvest Outreach interacts with the community in different ways, such as giving out donated food in different spots of Milwaukee.
“It’s not that we’re poor, it’s not that we’re underprivileged, it’s that we’re under-informed,” he said. “It’s about capitalism, and in capitalism there’s no money in the cure, there’s only money in the symptoms. A lot of people say ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps,’ but first we need some boots. Then, if we’ve got boots, we need some straps.”
Family members of gun court defendants also see more human dimension to the men than can be captured by a cold read of court documents or scan of Facebook pages.
Victor Yancey Jr. grew up in unstable home where his now deceased father would allegedly take out a brown leather belt to whip Victor and his oldest sister, Sasha, leaving purple bruises on them. They were the main targets, she said in an interview with Media Milwaukee.
“He also used extension cords on me and Victor too,” she said. Sasha also shared her childhood with Yancey in her autobiography, The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness.
Yancey was charged in gun court with 1st-degree recklessly endangering safety and endanger safety/reckless use of firearm. Judge Mark Sanders gave him 12 years confinement time in state prison, far more than the average sentence. He has an open case for second-degree sexual assault of a child.
Yancey allegedly showed up at the house of a man named William McNary and told him that McNary “was messing up his business,” court records show. According to McNary, Victor was a neighborhood drug dealer, court records alleged. When McNary went home, he heard a knock at his door, and Victor was allegedly standing next to the porch on the ground. McNary also saw two individuals standing in the alley. One had a gun. When the individual raised the gun at McNary, McNary shut the door and a shot was fired. Five more shots rang out next. One hit a refrigerator. One hit a beam. And one almost hit a person in the kitchen, the records allege.
Sasha said Yancey was working as a caregiver at one point. She also said Yancey was talented. He wrote his own lyrics. He even went to a music studio to record rap songs with his cousin, Jimmy.
“I talked to him, and he has a heart still,” she said. “He’s not some cold-hearted monster.”
In Yancey’s criminal case file, he wrote numerous letters to judges, pleading for them to look further into his cases. In one handwritten letter, Yancey wrote, “PLEEASE.” He also wrote Media Milwaukee a multiple page, painstakingly handwritten letter in which he alleged police misconduct and said he has been framed.
The five defendants who were back in gun court after previously being convicted of homicide include a man who killed someone in an accidental shooting at age 17; a Nash Street Boys gang member previously convicted of felony murder and armed robbery; and a man convicted in a high profile 2006 mob beating.
“There is a serious gun problem in Milwaukee,” Rosa said. “…A lot of times it’s the bad guys getting the bad guys, but there’ve been a number of citizens that have been wounded unintentionally… you have a whole community that’s disrupted by the gun violence and so… it’s really become a big public safety issue. It affects quality of life, and it’s a very significant problem.”
For example, Jharon Winters, 29, was convicted of fourth-degree sexual assault in 2005 for having intercourse with a 14-year-old girl. Then, in 2006, he was convicted of second-degree reckless homicide where he stabbed his cousin to death over the strength of the weed he was selling. He received 8 years in prison.
Fast forward to 2015, when officers received a call for multiple shots fired. Winters was allegedly walking down the street, saw officers scoping the area and fled on foot. After a brief chase, the responding officers saw Winters chuck his firearm onto a back porch, court records show. Winters was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, resisting an officer, and carrying a concealed weapon (the latter charge was dismissed). Despite his past record, he was released on $2,500 bail.
Judge Rosa sentenced Winters to 1 year in prison confinement time.
Judge Rosa said many factors go into sentencing gun offenders, including the “gravity of the offense,” the defendant’s character, and other “things they may bring to the table, prior record, job, education…a pattern of bad behavior.” Also paramount, he said: The need to protect the public.
Many of the defendants are previously convicted felons and/or have lengthy records. More than three-fourths had a prior adult criminal record in Wisconsin. That percentage is understated because it doesn’t count juvenile records, criminal traffic, or out-of-state records. About 65 percent have previous adult felony records in Wisconsin. Many are previously convicted cocaine dealers. One-fourth are repeat firearm offenders.
Some of the gun court defendants have been in the news before for other reasons; one helped beat a maintenance man with a baseball bat; the man, who had a concealed carry permit, then shot one of his assailants. The gun court cases run the gamut; they include a man who allegedly shot at police after taking a Porsche on a joy ride; a man who allegedly got in a gun duel in the street; a man who somehow managed to smuggle a gun into the jail; a man who allegedly carjacked a motorist and then shot him, paralyzing him; a man involved in a case in which a gun used in multiple crimes was hidden; and a man who allegedly shot a teen and teacher in a high school parking lot in an argument over a basketball game.
Although Milwaukee police drug arrests have dropped in recent years in Milwaukee (according to an Appleton Post-Crescent report), firearms offenses often have a tie to drug dealing, the student investigation found. In the sample studied, more than 220 had prior adult drug convictions. That’s 40 percent, despite the youthful age of some offenders, giving them little time to offend in adult court.
In a few cases, there is strong evidence that the defendants didn’t do the crime or that the system violated their rights. In several cases, judges suppressed evidence, resulting in dismissed cases.
One troubling dismissed case involved a 34-year-old Milwaukee man. He was charged with armed robbery, possessing a firearm by a felon, first-degree intentional homicide to an unborn child, and attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
The unusual case dates back to 2012, when a woman was robbed at gunpoint at her apartment’s parking lot late at night. The victim told police that the robber pointed his silver handgun at her and demanded her purse and cellphone, before fleeing on foot. The man was in his mid late 20’s, about 5 feet and 8 inches, stocky with a dark complexion and had a scar on his right cheek beneath his right eye, court records show.
Three years later, in July 2015, the woman dropped off her son at his daycare. As she walked back to her car, she noticed a man walking past the alley, and she thought he looked like the man who robbed her in 2012. When she saw the man pull out a silver handgun from his waistband, she tried to run into the daycare, but he grabbed her arm and shot her once in the abdomen, court records say. She fell to the ground but managed to crawl to the daycare and knocked on the door, falling to the carpeted floor and passing out. She was 20 weeks pregnant. Unfortunately, her unborn male fetus did not survive.
Before identifying the 34-year-old man as the male who robbed and shot her, the victim reviewed a photo album that contained several mugshots of individuals. The victim pointed out another man, but that man was in custody on the day of the incident, the records show. Also that man was younger and did not have a scar. The victim looked through the album again, and this time she picked the 34-year-old man, said the records.
The thing was that the 34-year-old man did not have a scar, either, so the judge eventually dismissed the case for lacking probable cause; however, it took nine months to reach that conclusion while the man was held on $500,000 bail, sacrificing his freedom for something the court did not feel confident he did. The man still has a pending heroin dealing charge.
The circumstances of that case are unique, but prosecutors said dismissed cases are going to happen in a busy criminal justice system.
“This is a human experience relying on human witnesses and all of the complexities that come with that; there will be cases that get dismissed,” Lovern said. “That’s just a reality.”
Lovern said there are many complexities in cases reliant upon victims or witnesses. Some people move, and some people are afraid; they are not eager to testify against felons who have, in some cases, shot people in the past and are still out on the streets on bail. Some victims commit serious crimes that affect their credibility. And some people want to avenge the crime outside of the criminal justice system.
“They’re more interested in settling the score outside of the criminal justice system,” he said.
Lovern also said that the DA’s office aggressively pursues investigations of intimidation, which is on the rise in Milwaukee County and is one of the more common reasons that cases are tossed out. The DA’s office has eight investigators dedicated solely to witness protection, and has filed recent high-profile charges in intimidation cases.
“Last year, they reviewed over 400 complaints of witness protection,” Lovern said. “Many of those cases related to the gun court, many of them related to our homicide court, (and) many of them related to our domestic violence courts, so it’s a real problem. So, can I say it’s on the rise? I can say we have more and more complaints being given to us.”
For example, on Feb. 6, Devonta Baber was charged with 1st degree recklessly endangering safety and intimidation of a witness through force or violence. His case file reads like a back-and-forth saga of street vengeance. It also wasn’t his first time in court; in 2016, he was sentenced to 10 days in the House of Correction by Judge Michael Guolee for carrying a concealed weapon. In fact, this March, the court records say the judge ruled that Baber would be considered for expungement of the concealed carry charge provided he didn’t reoffend, even though he had been charged the month before with new offenses.
The alleged deadly tit-for-tat that led to the recent charges started when Baber was allegedly involved in a fistfight with a man named Gregory Jiles. The fistfight led Baber’s brother, Shane Foster, to shoot and kill Jiles, court records allege. When police arrived, Gregory Jiles was lying dead between the sidewalk and the street with multiple gunshot wounds, the city’s 110th homicide victim in 2015.
Foster was charged with 2nd degree reckless homicide and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Baber and Jiles’ brother, Earl, were witnesses to that case, and Baber landed in gun court when he allegedly tried to prevent Earl Jiles from testifying against Foster.
On the day of Foster’s birthday, Baber allegedly drove to Earl Jiles’ workplace. Jiles was working in a restaurant when he saw Baber drive past the drive-thru window, back up and roll down his windows, court records allege. He allegedly said to Jiles, “I’m going to kill you, I’m killing you. On my brother, I am going to kill you.”
Baber then later circled around the restaurant and drove past the drive-thru again, the records contend. Earl Jiles stepped outside and saw Baber allegedly holding a gun in his right hand. Baber allegedly shot once at Earl Jiles, but missed as Earl Jiles retreated back towards a glass door. Earl Jiles then allegedly drew his own gun to shoot at Baber once before going back inside the restaurant for safety, the records show.
There are resources offered through the court system, but some people would rather do it on their own by taking it out of the courtroom and into the streets, said Lovern, speaking of the general problem.
Baber told Media Milwaukee in a video interview at the Milwaukee County Jail that he is aware of the violence in the city and even the bad influences at his high schools. Baber said he went to Vincent High School but was kicked out. He then went to Madison High School, but they kicked him out as well, though he said he did manage to get his diploma at 17-years-old.
Half of Baber’s face could be seen on the grainy video screen. Behind him was darkness and the screen light glared upon his face. He answered the questions in a easygoing manner. He said he has a 19-month-old baby boy and does not want him to experience what he went through, such as the times when he grew up in poverty on the city’s north side.
“It’s a cycle,” he said. “I’m trying to break the cycle.” Baber also said it will take a strong mind and a strong individual to lead the city.
Although Baber’s case is pending, some cases are dismissed for reasons other than intimidation. One 28-year-old Milwaukee man allegedly had a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun loaded with four rounds in the magazine when Milwaukee police officers were called for a “suspicious person” complaint on Feb. 29. The caller allegedly saw a person place a firearm and drugs into the front hood of a blue Buick along Martin Luther King Drive and described the defendant’s outfit.
Milwaukee police saw the 28-year-old man, who matched the description, and waited outside the store for him, court records say. He exited the store, and then went back in and, after some time, the police entered the store and asked to search his car, to which he agreed. The man pleaded not guilty, and the case was dismissed due to “a number of outstanding discovery issues.” In 2014, the man had been convicted of drug possession, an earlier offense for which he was sentenced to six months in the House of Correction. The other charge was dismissed on the prosecutor’s motion.
The Legislature passed a new law, signed by Gov. Walker last November and not without dissent from some in the state Senate, to create mandatory minimums for state gun offenses committed by felons. Most of the cases in the time frame studied occurred before that law was passed, meaning it doesn’t apply to them. However, many of them wouldn’t have fallen under the mandatory minimums anyway, Media Milwaukee found.
Lovern said the DA’s office did not oppose mandatory minimums but downplayed their potential impact, although he said it was too early to know for sure.
“The minimum applied was fairly close to what is already being imposed in the gun court,” he said, adding that, as a result, he didn’t think mandatory minimums would increase the number of jury trials, further clogging a busy system.
Rosa said he had mixed feelings on mandatory minimums but called them “a statement from the community of what the community standard should be so it’s a strong statement that we have to treat these cases more seriously.”
He said he understands the community’s frustration, but added that, “As a judge, I like discretion and an ability to fashion a sentence so that it fits the individual in front of me instead of trying to have a ‘cookie cutter’ or ‘one size fits all’ type of outcome.”
An example of a case where a judge didn’t think a prison term was warranted is that of an 18-year-old Milwaukee man who was sentenced to work-release jail and probation by Judge Mark Sanders, a former prosecutor.
The teenager was charged with illegally possessing a firearm because he was adjudged delinquent in juvenile court with an offense prohibiting him from carrying a weapon.
In 2015, he landed in adult gun court at age 17 after he allegedly fled from police officers (and was released on $750 bail). He was told to stop, but he continued to run with his right hand holding the front pockets of his pants, court records allege. The teen turned the corner of a gas station, and one of the officers heard “a loud metallic clunk on the pavement,” the records say. When the teen turned the corner, he reached a dead end.
His pockets were allegedly empty by then. But one of the officers observed a black Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver on the other side of a fence. The revolver had a road rash from striking a brick house when it was thrown over the fence, the criminal complaint said.
When he was arrested, the teenager’s father came to the police district 7 station and told the police the firearm allegedly resembled one belonging to his mother, records contend. When the mother allegedly came forward with a blue Smith & Wesson gun case, inside the case was no gun. The mother allegedly kept the gun underneath some boxes and clothes in her bedroom closet. The serial number of the revolver and the case were a match, alleges the criminal complaint.
In a letter to the judge, the teenager’s mother wrote that he was a cancer survivor. An unofficial transcript was in his court file, which shows his grade progress. His freshman year, his GPA was 3.1, but it declined during his sophomore and junior year. However, his grades raised dramatically during his senior year. He received an A in Algebra 2 and Trigonometry class.
“If he had asked me to write this letter two years ago, I would have immediately refused,” his math teacher wrote in a letter to the court.
The math teacher saw positive changes in the teenager, especially in the young man’s behavior and attitude towards his education. And his high school transcript reflects that. His math teacher stated in the letter that the teenager’s test scores were the highest in the class. Other teachers have also provided positive feedback, and the teen was accepted to the University of Northern Michigan and the University of Wisconsin – Waukesha.
Due to being in jail, he could not attend prom and his graduation. A friend wrote in a Facebook messenger chat to Media Milwaukee: “I just wish I could be graduating and walking across the stage with him.” Both of them were supposed to go to prom together as well.
The Legislature has now taken away such judicial discretion in many cases.
If a felon is convicted of possessing a gun within the past five years after being convicted of a violent felony or violent misdemeanor, judges must now sentence them to three years in prison. The mandatory minimum provision expires in 2020. The mandatory minimum can rise to 5 years in prison for felons who use a gun to commit the worst types of felonies and as low as 1 year 6 months in prison for those who commit the lowest category of felony. The law allows a judge to bypass the section’s requirements if “a court subsequently determines that the person is not likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.”
The maximum sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm is 10 years. But the Media Milwaukee investigation found that defendants almost never receive anything even close to the max.
Furthermore, 35 percent of defendants in the Media Milwaukee gun court sample were not felons at all; sometimes that is due simply to their age. The average age of defendants in gun court was 28, but many are much younger; there were 10 who were 17-years-old. Some of the defendants have serious juvenile records. The mandatory minimums do apply to defendants adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court with crimes that would be violent felonies in adult court. There were some of those.
But about half of the time, the felon in possession charges are tossed out, Media Milwaukee found. Sometimes plea agreements result in that offense being dismissed while others lead to conviction; sometimes weak cases fall apart; sometimes defendants are sent to federal court; and sometimes witnesses and victims refuse to cooperate.
Some defendants who were charged after the new mandatory minimum laws are now starting to wind their way through court. One 29-year-old woman was charged in January 2016 after the new laws went into place with endangering safety/reckless use of a firearm. Bail? $10,000. The judge gave her a 6-month work-release jail sentence (with a stayed prison term she may never have to serve). She has two previous misdemeanors on her record.
In another case filed after the new law, a teenager was charged with second-degree recklessly endangering safety. Just 18, he has no prior adult record. He received probation (with 60 days stayed jail time to be used at the discretion of his probation agent and another stayed jail term). The man’s Facebook page shows him posing with large amounts of cash. He’s also posted memes and videos relating to drug use, shooting back at cops, and gangs.
A few already received sentences over the mandatory minimums, but it can take a lot of defiance to get there. Angel Suarez, 18, allegedly stole a woman’s purse at a south side laundromat and then shot twice at the woman’s father, who gave chase (he missed). The U.S. Marshal’s service asked for the media’s help when Suarez, who had a lengthy juvenile record, cut off his GPS bracelet and went on the lam. Suarez has a tattoo that says “demon” on his arm. He had six GPS violations as the shooting case progressed through the system, but Judge Joseph Donald responded by increasing his bail by $500 to $1,000 (the prosecution argued for $10,000), court records show.
Eventually apprehended, Suarez was charged with 2 counts of felony bail jumping, operating an auto without owner’s consent, criminal trespass, and fleeing an officer. The earlier shooting and theft charges were then dismissed but read in. The bottom line sentence? A little over 7 years of prison and jail time combined.
Others get well below the mandatory minimums.
In one case, a woman was driving and allegedly cut a 23-year-old man off, but she may not have been his intended target when he decided to shoot, court records showed. He was convicted of endangering safety with reckless use of a firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The man was unresponsive to Judge Rosa during his hearing unless directed to answer. He has a history of substance abuse, was intoxicated the day he was arrested and doesn’t remember the details of that day. The defendant did take the time to write an apology letter to the victim.
The man received 12 months in work release jail (getting out for 14 hours a day, so long as he works 12-hour shifts). If he messes up yet again, he will also have to serve three years stayed prison time. According to the man’s Facebook page, he has been a media presenter/hip-hop artist since May of 2015. One of his songs refers to weed and money. A Facebook post, while his gun court case was pending, said, “Why would you want to stand there waving a weapon when you can fight why?” He has also posted a video of a fight.
Walworth County, though, let him off even easier than Milwaukee; a few months before, he was caught carrying a concealed weapon. Despite being a convicted felon, he was only socked with the concealed weapon offense. The sentence? It was handled as a municipal ticket, and he had to pay $182.50. He never paid.
Isaiah Matthews, 20, was convicted of attempted 1st degree intentional homicide. Bail was set at $10,000. Judge Rosa gave him 485 days in jail with credit for time served.
A second offense, for possessing a firearm as an adjudged delinquent was dismissed in a plea agreement. The court ordered restitution set at $0. What did he do? Matthews’ sister, Coleman, got in a physical fight with her boyfriend, Jefferson. So, Matthews shot him.
Matthews has two children, finished high school and was previously convicted of burglary. He created a business plan for his future that he presented to the Judge. This is the first time Rosa has been presented with a business plan by a convict.
Guerard, the defense attorney, said there are many factors that can mitigate the sentence for a defendant (he did not represent Matthews and was speaking generally).
“Education’s always good,” he said. “So, if someone has some educational background and can have their needs and wants met when they get out…without resorting to crime. If someone can get a job. Having a supportive family, that’s also helpful. And a lot of it depends on the nature of the offense too… having a plan and describing to the court why you’re not going to come, why he or she’s not going to come back there and how they’re going to stay away is important I think.”
More than 94 percent of the gun court cases had male defendants. Women receive less time than men. The median sentence for female defendants was less than a month behind bars. The average, which is higher because one woman received 5 years in prison, is 8.7 months. Many of the women were charged with recklessly endangering safety.
There is also an enormous racial disparity. Almost all gun court defendants – 92 percent – are African-American (31 of defendants in the 550 gun cases were white. That’s 5.6 percent. 13 defendants were Hispanic: 2.3 percent. 1 defendant was Asian.)
“There’s no question there’s a high number of African-American defendants in the gun court; it’s also important to know that 87 percent of victims of gun violence in this community are also African-American,” said Lovern.
The cases received in gun court are initially brought in by the police, but the District Attorney’s office’s charging rates are “almost identical” for all ethnic groups, Lovern said.
“We average about a 62-percent charging rate of all of the cases that are brought into us related to firearms violence, and there is consistency among all people regardless of their racial or ethnic background,” he added.
One of the more dramatic cases involving a female defendant is Chante McCurtis, 22, a woman who was wanted in Kissimmee, FL for allegedly battering an officer, and who was charged with multiple felonies when she came to Wisconsin. In 2014, in Milwaukee, she was charged with first-degree recklessly endangering safety and reckless injury. Last September, she was charged with first-degree reckless injury and first-degree recklessly endangering safety. She was initially released on $10,000 bail. In May 2016, she was charged in Waukesha County with bail jumping, operating a firearm while intoxicated and conceal and carry. In March, there was a stipulated order to withdraw her violation of probation warrant from Florida. In January 2016, she was charged in Milwaukee County with interfering with child custody and bail jumping.
McCurtis allegedly showed up at her ex-girlfriend’s house with two other armed men. McCurtis told witnesses not to call police, otherwise she would tear the place up, court records allege. Then, McCurtis allegedly took her ex’s 2-year-old with her. The child’s mom and McCurtis used to live together.
Waukesha County vs. Milwaukee County
Waukesha County does not struggle with the level of shootings and homicides as neighboring Milwaukee. In Waukesha County, there are far fewer weapons cases, spreadsheets obtained through open records laws show.
Taking a closer look at carrying a concealed weapon and felon in possession of a firearm charges, Media Milwaukee found that, in almost 70 percent of cases with those, defendants received a fine or probation from an array of judges (there were far fewer felon in possession cases, though; in half of those, the defendant got prison, and in half they didn’t). Media Milwaukee looked at the overall confinement time in each case, whether there were multiple charges or not. Median bail was less than in Milwaukee County: In Waukesha County, it was $1,000. More than twice as many defendants were from Waukesha County as were from Milwaukee County in the sample studied.
“Charges for CCW, endangering Safety by use of a dangerous weapon and the armed enhancer may or may not have involved a firearm. It could be any dangerous weapon for those statutes to apply,” Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper pointed out. “Also, violations of 941.23 (carrying a concealed weapon) and 941.20 (endangering safety by use of a dangerous weapon) are misdemeanors where no prison sentence is available. That would explain why you are seeing probation, fine and jail on those cases; those are the only sentencing options available.”
She added, “Aside from these observations, I certainly welcome the fact that we do not have significant criminal activity involving guns or dangerous weapons in Waukesha County. I attribute that to diligent enforcement by our police departments and sheriff’s office, along with responsible conduct by our citizens, and the efforts of prosecutors to charge the cases and hold offenders accountable.”
To study the issue further, Media Milwaukee filtered out cases in the sample where there was a felony charge. The same pattern held true; of those, most offenders received probation or jail, a few received non-stayed prison terms, and 1 was sent to drug court.
As a rule, Waukesha County weapons offenders had less serious records than Milwaukee County offenders; the vast majority were not felons. About one-fourth in the sample studied had already allegedly reoffended. All charges were dismissed in a smaller percentage of cases than in Milwaukee County, in the sample studied. Overall, many cases in Waukesha County resulted in convictions in plea agreements.
In the cases with plea agreements, though, it was often the gun charge that was tossed out to obtain conviction; a defendant was convicted of a gun charge in less than half of the cases filed, in the sample studied.
The bottom line: Fines and probation were more common in the Waukesha County sample than in Milwaukee.
The Waukesha County defendants were mostly white; however, African-Americans are represented disproportionately compared to their numbers in the population in that county. More than 60 percent in the sample studied were white. There were more women than in Milwaukee County’s gun court. Some of the cases in the Waukesha County sample involved non firearms (brass knuckles, knives, etc.)
Showing the crossover that sometimes occurs between counties, though, Waukesha County tossed out the carrying a concealed weapon case for one man. The reason: he ended up a Milwaukee County homicide victim.
Michael Schoos was shot and killed after his girlfriend allegedly set him up in a robbery. One of the men now charged with felony murder in that case? He was the other Milwaukee County gun court defendant charged with homicide while his gun court was pending.
In 2010, the defendant was also charged in Milwaukee with being an adjudged juvenile delinquent in possession of a firearm. Judge Rebecca Dallet gave him 22 months in prison. In 2002, his extended supervision (basically supervision in the community after serving confinement time) was revoked. He also had an open case in gun court at the time for first-degree reckless injury and possession of a firearm by a felon. It was filed the month after Schoos died.