Firearms checks by prosecutor helped by new form

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

In response to a murder investigation that revealed a confiscated gun had been mistakenly returned to a man convicted of abusing his girlfriend, the Cape Girardeau County prosecutor is trying to add more oversight to the process of releasing firearms.

A new form requiring prosecutors to look more closely at criminal records should stop similar errors, Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said.

Gregory Allen McNeely, 24, now faces charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the Nov. 1 shooting death of Terry Vernon Lynn, 26. In May, he pleaded guilty to third-degree domestic assault -- making him ineligible under a 1996 federal law to possess a gun. Police released the semiautomatic .380-caliber pistol to him June 23.

Swingle said the mistake occurred when McNeely was not directed to obtain a permit from the sheriff's office to transfer ownership of the gun to a relative or friend.

McNeely was arrested in April for squeezing his live-in girlfriend between a door and a wall, Swingle said. The gun, which was stored under a mattress, wasn't used in the assault. But police still confiscated the weapon.

The evidence technician who released the gun followed department policy by obtaining a release form signed by a prosecutor, who in this case was Swingle.

In felony convictions, guns can be forfeited, but in misdemeanor cases confiscated firearms must be released, Swingle said.

"It was going to be released," Swingle said of McNeely's gun. "The only question was to whom."

To prevent a repeat of the error, Swingle designed a new firearm release form that requires prosecutors to check office records for any convictions that would prohibit the defendant from possessing gun -- a felony or a misdemeanor for domestic assault.

The form also instructs police to check their own records to verify a lack of such convictions, which Cape Girardeau police chief Steve Strong said was already the department's practice.

However, the computer database system police use to run criminal background checks, MULES, does not always show current convictions with a subject's arrest history, Strong said.

"We did that in McNeely's case, and to this day it does not show his conviction," Strong said.

If any such convictions do exist, the prosecutor's new form then instructs that ownership of the gun must be transferred to a third party through a permit.

"But realize that's not going to be a guarantee something won't happen," the chief said. "We've had situations where the gun went to a relative. It's not a perfect system."

Strong is currently reviewing his department's evidence release procedures and intends to meet with Swingle soon to discuss what more can be done.

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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