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Two months into his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Roscoe Howard Jr. has begun reshaping his 350-lawyer office with a focus on capturing more high-profile federal cases. To lead the effort, the former University of Kansas law professor has hired a team of Justice Department veterans — nearly all of whom worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Eric Holder Jr. and Wilma Lewis. Howard’s plan, which the U.S. Attorney points out is still in the discussion stage, would centralize homicide prosecutions, create more movement among line prosecutors in the office’s various divisions, merge some units in the office and create a more aggressive approach within the federal court division, particularly in obtaining terrorism cases. “We could be a little more efficient with our prosecutions,” Howard says. ” he office has certainly done its share of fairly high-profile cases, but I think we can do more.” Howard has been discussing changes with division supervisors and line prosecutors over the past two weeks and calls his proposal a “prototype.” He says he is seeking comment from everyone in the office before finalizing any of his plans. Howard was quickly confirmed by the Senate the week of the Sept. 11 attacks and hired top-level staffers just days after joining the office. Mary Lou Leary, who was a supervisor under Holder, was brought in from the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs to be Howard’s principal assistant. Daniel Seikaly, a former director of the DOJ’s Office of National Security and earlier an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District, came from the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Inspector General to run the Criminal Division. And Clifford Keenan, who ran the office’s community prosecutions section until leaving for Main Justice last year, became chief of the D.C. Superior Court division. Howard says he worked with all three when he was an AUSA in the District in the mid 1980s. Some of the proposed reforms appear to be a direct response to criticism of the office from conservative commentators, local officials, and its own prosecutors, specifically the office’s inability to snag high-profile federal cases and a lack of movement among prosecutors in its U.S. District Court section. They also represent a dramatic shift in the office’s priorities that could steer the focus away from the community prosecutions program that was implemented with much fanfare, money and local support by Howard’s predecessors Holder and Lewis. U.S. Attorney spokesman Channing Phillips insists community prosecutions will not fall by the wayside, but says the program may be restructured. “We fully embrace the concept of a geographical focus” to fighting crime, Phillips says. “The question is how best to achieve that goal.” Howard adds that community prosecutions will remain a key focus of his office’s priorities. “It’s a terrific program,” says Howard, pointing out that his new Superior Court chief spearheaded the program. “The community loves it, the police love it, and it will be here while I’m here and hopefully when I leave.” The community prosecutions program began in 1996 on a pilot basis and was closely tied to the Metropolitan Police Department’s community policing program. In late 1999, it was expanded, and 55 prosecutors were assigned to handle a variety of cases — ranging from street corner muggings to drive-by shootings — in a single district in the city. These prosecutors were also required attend regular criminal justice meetings in the community they were assigned to. The idea behind the program was that by establishing relationships with residents, prosecutors and police would be able to solve more crimes — however minor — and prevent crime from taking hold in various sections of the city. Part of that plan involved reassigning most homicide prosecutors to the community prosecutions section. Many homicide veterans complained of the move, stating that they would now lack the time to put together good murder cases. Some transferred to other sections, such as gang and narcotics, which were not affected by the community prosecutions program. Howard is now looking at bringing the homicide unit together again — a decision similar to the one Police Chief Charles Ramsey made last month in response to reports that cops were closing less than 50 percent of the city’s murder cases. Phillips says that homicide prosecution is a specialized practice and that prosecutors can build on each other’s expertise if working in a single unit — leading to better cases and more convictions. Howard is also looking at beefing up the office’s U.S. District Court practice on many fronts, including a larger focus on economic crimes and public corruption cases. Some former prosecutors say the choice of Seikaly to head the Criminal Division would help the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District get some of the high-profile terrorism and spy cases because of his contacts in various federal agencies. In the past few years, several such cases have gone to the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia. “Having someone like Dan [Seikaly] gives federal law enforcement confidence that the case will be handled efficiently, effectively, and thoroughly,” says D.C. defense lawyer David Schertler, former chief of the homicide section in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “That has not always been the case in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C.” Howard says his office is willing to take on cases that in the past were handled by independent counsel or special prosecutors. And by going after more public corruption and white-collar crime, Howard says federal agencies will realize that the District has the resources to prosecute high-profile, complex cases. “A lot of it is letting people know we’re here and that we have the capabilities,” he says. Howard says he would like to shuffle prosecutors around more in the federal court division, including those sections that handle gang prosecutions, narcotics, economic crimes, public corruption and transnational crimes. The lack of movement, some former prosecutors say, prevents younger attorneys from getting experience in the federal court and leads to complacency on the part of some of the veterans. Howard proposes implementing a transfer program whereby most line prosecutors and supervisors would remain in a unit for a certain period of time — for example, one or two years — and then would move on to another. By moving people around the office more frequently, Howard says the office would be better able to respond to emergency matters. “Sept. 11 highlights the need for this,” he says. “Hopefully under this system that I’m proposing right now, we’d be able to move a number of assistants into an area if a challenge presents itself.” Howard says he would also like to tear down the long-standing barrier between the Superior Court and U.S. District Court divisions, possibly by merging some federal court and local court sections. “The homicide unit should handle any homicide that comes into them and the gang unit should handle a case whether it’s in the D.C. court or the federal court,” Howard says. “We should be concentrating on criminal areas of expertise, as opposed to different divisions.”

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