David Wilbur Studli's voice sounds disconnected and hollow, like he's calling up from the bottom of a well. He speaks in short, nervous bursts of words that come quickly but still sound flat and murmurous. He is talking on a speaker phone from a room somewhere inside an Arizona state prison. A corrections officer can be heard clearing his throat and tapping away at a keyboard in the background.

"I'm trying to get out of here as soon as I can," Studli says.
He has been an inmate of the Arizona prison system since June 13. A month before that, he was convicted of aggravated assault for threatening his ex-lover with a gun during a spat in which no one was injured. He was sentenced to four years and three months in prison. If he behaves himself, he could be paroled after serving just over two years. His 23rd birthday was last week. The prison unit where Studli currently resides is his fifth. He has been moved four times because of dozens of threats and two actual attempts on his life. His life was threatened because he is gay, and because he is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"They said, 'If the faggot isn't taken off the yard, he'll be dealt with, inmate-style,'" he says.

Studli committed his crime exactly one month after Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley put his "deadly weapon" policy into effect--in fact, Studli was one of the first people to be tried under it. According to the policy, no one criminally charged with the use of a deadly weapon (that is, a firearm, or one of several types of knives) will be offered a plea agreement that does not include prison time. The many critics of the county attorney's weapons policy--including at least one prosecutor in the County Attorney's Office--say that it has become an unreasonable burden on the thinly stretched county budget; that it is enforced too often when it shouldn't be and not often enough when it should; and that it has wrongly conferred long prison sentences on numerous minor offenders. Minor offenders like David Studli.

In most criminal cases, the American justice system allows prosecutors a certain amount of discretion. During the course of prosecution, they are expected to differentiate solid, upstanding citizens who have made impetuous mistakes from homicidal crack smokers who have no regard for human life. In short, and in general, a prosecutor is expected to serve justice, seeking maximum sentences for heinous, repeated lawbreaking, but offering reduced charges or probation when the situation warrants.

When it comes to guns and crime, however, the County Attorney's Office has thrown discretion out the window. If Studli had committed his crime only weeks earlier, his public defender contended in court documents, the County Attorney's Office would almost certainly have offered a plea bargain carrying a minimal sentence. Based on his lack of prior criminal activity, his solid ties to the community and his lengthy history of civic activities and volunteer work, Studli would likely have received a short stay in the county jail, followed by a term of probation.

Because of Romley's tough-on-guns policy, however, Studli was sent to prison for at least two years. His punishment may not seem terribly harsh to the law-and-order set. But HIV infection inevitably becomes AIDS, and AIDS is always fatal.

For David Studli, two years could be a life sentence.

The Maricopa County Attorney's Office says it has enjoyed considerable success with, and received overwhelming public support for, its deadly-weapons policy. The office claims the policy is judiciously enforced and fairly applied. Defending the integrity of the policy, however, has placed Romley in a curious position.

He must deny that there is much less than across-the-board enforcement of the guns-get-prison policy. At the same time, he must contend that exceptions may be and are made under the correct circumstances.

Many local prosecutors and defense attorneys say that no such happy balance exists. Because of the new deadly-weapons policy, they say, prosecutors only try cases they think they are sure to win. That means easily provable, but not genuinely serious, gun charges will always be tried, often sending nonthreatening first offenders to prison. Meanwhile, many complex, serious weapons cases--the kind that often lack tidy, ironclad trails of evidence--are dropped before trial, charged as lesser offenses or never charged at all.

"The juries don't want to convict on this," says Roland Steinle, a Maricopa County public defender. He says that despite Romley's "no plead" weapons policy, the Public Defender's Office has had great success in getting charges reduced.

He also says county prosecutors have told him privately that they are often afraid to ask for an exception to the no-plea rule, even in a case that obviously does not warrant prison time.

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Dave Plank