Karen Heller: Show of neighborhood force helps put away a menace

Most illegal gun-possession trials resemble a sad, lopsided wedding, a throng of loved ones flocking the defendant while, on the courtroom's other side, no one sits behind the lone prosecutor.

But that's not what happened Friday at the sentencing hearing of Jerome Hill, 22, after his seventh arrest as an adult and only brief stops in jail.

Jerome Hill, whose arrest in Dec. helped cut violent crime 20 pct. on a vicious Kensington corner.

Despite the defense attorney's failure to appear for four hours, Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock had plenty of company: Capt. Charles Vogt of the 24th Police District, four cops who have arrested Hill, a community relations officer, one courageous neighborhood resident, and two activists from the antigun-violence group CeaseFirePA. Meanwhile, many of Hill's supporters drifted off during the long wait.

Vogt wrote in a letter to Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi, "Despite being a convicted felon, nothing has deterred Hill."

True. Hill had been arrested four times while on parole, three of them for illegal weapons.

Three years ago, based on analysis of thousands of cases, The Inquirer reported that Philadelphia had the nation's lowest conviction rate for violent felonies. Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey cites the pervasive presence of illegal guns as a leading contributor to our violent crime rate.

In Hill's case, that would be the .45-caliber Taurus he tossed four days after Christmas when police approached him near his Kensington corner at G and Westmoreland.

In Philadelphia in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, almost two-thirds of defendants convicted of carrying illegal guns were sentenced to probation or a minimum sentence of fewer than 10 months in prison.

And what has the city done about this? Disbanded its gun court last year, after the elimination of a state grant.

"We need real punishments for people committing crimes with firearms," Ramsey told me recently.

If you lock up criminals for serious time "just for having a gun during the commission of a crime," Ramsey said, "you won't have to do that too often."

A small group of bad guys with powerful weapons can wreck a community. Since Hill's arrest in December, and that of two associates a month later, violent crime in the four-block radius of the Westmore Money Boyz's vicious little corner dropped 20 percent.

Friday was the first time Vogt had appeared in court on an illegal-gun-possession case, along with so many officers, but he says it won't be the last: "This definitely made a difference, and we plan to bring in officers and folks from the community."

The Hill family of Kensington is no stranger to the courts. Jerome - a.k.a. "Killa Rome" - has three younger brothers who have all been charged with felonies, a couple of cousins as well, most of them prosecuted by Wellbrock.

And it's not as if Hill hasn't fired a weapon at someone. Five years ago, Hill accidentally shot his cousin in the stomach. Or so he said. He was subsequently charged with two other shootings.

The defense argued that Hill had grown up without a father figure and recently became a first-time father. But a community resident named Maria - she's too scared to have her last name published - gave up her day to be in court.

Hill "has been terrorizing the neighborhood. Everyone thinks because they carry a gun, they can intimidate you," she told me. "We can't live our lives in fear. We want to send a strong message that we are against carrying illegal guns."

CeaseFirePA's Max Nacheman, who helped organize Friday's group to support the prosecution and a dozen before them, said: "We're trying to avoid catch-and-release. We're trying to neutralize him before he was on the street and opening fire. This certainly wasn't a victimless crime. The whole neighborhood was a victim."

Wellbrock believes "the judge was definitely impressed" by the commitment of law enforcement, residents, and activists.

Indeed, the judge was. Jerome Hill cried. He said he was willing to turn his life around, asked for a second chance. DeFino-Nastasi didn't buy the tears or the lack of male role models, and threw the book at Hill.

"You made a choice. You're not stupid. You chose to carry a gun," she told him Friday. "You're going away for a long time.

"For all these police officers to take time out of their day to show up, you are causing some big trouble down there," the judge said. "I have been doing this for a long time, and they don't take time out of their day just to come here to persecute you. There is something really wrong going on."

She had been the judge when Hill was arrested for shooting his cousin. "I ordered that you never have a gun again, and you thumbed your nose at that," she admonished. "Didn't you know that having a gun after you were convicted of that shooting was a felony of the second degree? Didn't you realize that if you were caught with a gun again that you would go to jail for a long time?"

And then she sentenced Jermone Hill to four to eight years in prison, eight years being double the maximum average sentence.

Wellbrock told me that "I went home feeling I definitely did something Friday," that the sentence not only helped make Kensington a little safer, but Hill, too. "In the end, when you lock up someone like Jermone Hill for four to eight years, you're stopping him from getting killed or killing."

CeaseFirePA's Nacheman plans to be back in court next week with more cops and residents on another case. And then the next month. And the month after that.

They're demonstrating that sometimes a concerted, organized effort by the community, activists, and law enforcement can be as powerful as any gun.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @kheller.