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All three of these high-profile cases could have been tried in state court. But Coggins stepped in and tried them in federal court under the new law.

Attorneys who specialize in federal death penalty cases say U.S. attorneys have wide discretion on whether to step in and bring capital cases, which are then reviewed at higher levels in the Justice Department.

"If a prosecutor is gung-ho for the death penalty, then those cases will be brought. These are capital cases in the Northern District of Texas, and they wouldn't have been [tried] elsewhere," says Kevin McNally, a Kentucky attorney with the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project.

While federal jurisdiction is clear in cases such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber, many states--Texas included--have competing jurisdiction over most murder cases, McNally explains. "Texas and Arkansas have been very capable of trying, convicting, and executing murderers."

In the San Angelo case, Coggins says, the rural county that had jurisdiction did not have the resources or experience to try Jones. In the Lisa Rene murder, Tarrant County prosecutor Alan Levy says, the fact that the abduction began in Texas and ended in Arkansas made it more logically a federal case.

Beyond the death penalty push, Coggins' emphasis on violent crime was clearly demonstrated by the one case he picked to try himself. For his only courtroom appearance in four years, Coggins chose the district's first trial under the "three strikes" provision of the 1994 omnibus crime law, which ushered in life sentences for repeat violent offenders.

Last June, Coggins and an assistant buried Mark Linnear Hays, the "Ninja robber," under a mountain of proof, including fiber evidence, DNA, fingerprints, blood, and testimony from co-defendants. Hays, who had three prior convictions for robbery and burglary, was found guilty of breaking into a Dallas drugstore in April 1995 and pistol-whipping the store manager. He was sentenced to two life terms.

In dogging street crime, Coggins has fallen in line with the Clinton administration's major anti-crime theme. He is chairman of Attorney General Reno's advisory council's committee on violent crime, a group of 12 U.S. attorneys that consults on legislation and charts strategy with the FBI, DEA, and other law enforcement agencies.

When the Justice Department ballyhooed its violent crime initiative in a status report last fall, it singled out a push by federal and local law enforcement in Dallas to sweep crack-dealing gangs out of the Frazier Court housing project. Twenty-two people were convicted of firearms or drug charges.

Federal statutes have made selling even small amounts of crack cocaine a serious federal offense. "These are little cases on the surface, but big in terms of the law," says Tim Banner, a Dallas defense lawyer. "If you're caught with 50 grams of crack, you're gonna get 10 years, and you do all of it."

By most accounts, Coggins has been adept at coordinating this street crime war among local police chiefs, state prosecutors, and federal agencies. "We're glad we have 'em," says Norm Kinne, first assistant Dallas County district attorney. "They select a few cases we might otherwise try."

But some question whether the violent crime agenda is pushing attacks on more sophisticated crime off the table, crimes that nobody but the feds--benefiting from broad conspiracy laws and their powers to wiretap--can pursue.

"A few years ago, everything that walked in the door was a substantial drug case or a white-collar case. That's not what's happening now," says Frank Jackson, a Dallas defense lawyer. "Now there is an assortment of federal crimes, like felon in possession of a weapon."

Coggins' office is prosecuting armed robbers under the legal theory that one commits a federal crime for robbing a dry cleaner because the shop's chemicals came across state lines.

"What we pursue is a balancing act. You allocate personnel as best you can," says Coggins. "When we throw a few more bodies at drug prosecution, that's one or two more we take away from bank fraud, securities fraud; that's true."

And there are consequences.
Blau and other attorneys question, for instance, why Coggins hasn't assigned an assistant to specialize in environmental law. The Eastern District, which stretches from Beaumont to Greenville and Plano, has two lawyers in that specialty: one on the industrialized Gulf Coast and one in North Texas. Both are generating cases.

Says Coggins: "It's a valid criticism. We haven't done nearly as many cases as I'd like to, and we're not getting a lot of referrals."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec