Death penalty may be uphill fight in gang case

first_imgSANTA ANA, Calif. – Federal prosecutors bent on taking down the violent Aryan Brotherhood prison gang could be hard-pressed to win the death sentences they want in one of the largest capital punishment cases in U.S. history, legal experts said. Several unusual elements are in play in the case set to begin this week involving 32 murders and attempted murders allegedly orchestrated by leaders of the white supremacist gang. Many of the 16 defendants who could face the death penalty are already serving long prison terms, and nearly all of their alleged victims were other inmates convicted of violent felonies. Given the circumstances, jurors could be satisfied with a sentence of life without parole if the men are convicted, said William McGuigan, a defense attorney who has worked on cases targeting members of the Mexican Mafia. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECasino Insider: Here’s a look at San Manuel’s new high limit rooms, Asian restaurant “Typically, these guys have enough priors that they could convict them of possessing a shank or a gram of heroin, and they would be imprisoned for the rest of their lives,” McGuigan said. “The dynamics could not be as good for prosecutors as they think they are,” he said. Authorities arrested 40 Aryan Brotherhood members in 2002 after a six-year investigation intended to dismantle the gang’s leadership under a federal racketeering law originally passed to target Mafia leaders. Crimes detailed in the indictment span 30 years and occurred in prisons around the nation. Nineteen defendants reached plea deals and one has died. Opening statements in the first of several trials involving remaining suspects are scheduled for Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana. Prosecutors declined to be interviewed, but defense attorneys said most of the case will be built on testimony from jailhouse informants. Michael Radelet, a sociology professor and death penalty expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said juries are less likely to vote for death if they know a defendant is already serving a life sentence. That’s the case with many of the Aryan Brotherhood defendants. Barry “The Baron” Mills, a lead defendant, is serving two life terms for murder after nearly decapitating an inmate in 1979. In the upcoming trial, he faces a possible death sentence for allegedly orchestrating the 1997 murders of two black inmates serving time for rape at a prison in Lewisburg, Pa. Mills has pleaded not guilty. “If the person is already doing a life term and is having problems in prison, that in some ways shows a failure of the criminal justice system,” Radelet said. “The fact that justice systems are imperfect is an anti-death penalty argument, it’s not a pro-death penalty argument.” Radelet also questioned whether a death sentence for the gang ringleaders would serve as a deterrent for aspiring members, as prosecutors hope. “A fair number of people doing life without parole would prefer death,” he said. “When people get executed, they become heroes” to other inmates. Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University and a former federal prosecutor, said it’s also difficult for prosecutors to win death penalties when victims were serving time for violent crimes. A case built around jailhouse informants can compound the problem, she said. “It’s a much dirtier case when you have to use informants,” Levenson said. “It really comes down to how you use your informants. If the jurors hate the informant, they’re not going to vote for the death penalty.” Attorneys for the defendants echo those warnings and point to a related Aryan Brotherhood case that all but fell apart. The seven-month trial of David Michael Sahakian and two others ended in 2004 with a hung jury on charges of murder and conspiracy, said attorney Dean Steward, who represents Mills. Some jurors said they found the jailhouse informants who testified to be disgusting but called the defendants “charming and truthful,” according to Steward. Sahakian will be retried as part of the racketeering case. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more