Associated Press/July 30, 2006
By Gillian Flaccus
Santa Ana, California. -- Federal investigators toiled for years to build a case strong enough to cut off the head of a notorious white-supremacist prison gang and end its 40-year reign over the federal and state prison systems.
On Friday, the government's efforts bore fruit: a verdict that convicted four Aryan Brotherhood leaders of murder, conspiracy and racketeering and made two of them eligible for the death penalty.
Yet, as prosecutors celebrated, legal analysts and prison gang experts questioned whether the government's near-complete victory would translate into the demise of the gang and a reduction in prison violence.
"It was very successful, and I think that they will use the racketeering charge again," said Laurie L. Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School who tried prison murder cases as a federal prosecutor.
"But the truth is, this [gang] is like a hydra: You cut off a limb, and it's going to grow back," she said. "These guys have been around a long time, and they're going to get new leaders.
"It's heartening that law enforcement officers and prosecutors who have to do these cases see that there are some good results," Levenson said. "But do I think this marks the end of prison gangs? No way. Nobody thinks that."
Prosecutors declined to comment because the death penalty phase of the trial for two defendants, Barry "The Baron" Mills and T.D. "The Hulk" Bingham, is pending. That phase begins Aug. 15, when the same jury that convicted them will consider whether they should be executed or face life in prison.
Prosecutors have said they chose to pursue the death penalty to dismantle a gang whose top members were already serving life terms and seem unfazed by that.
Of the 40 people arrested in 2002, more than a dozen could face the death penalty. Many are scheduled for trial in Los Angeles later this year.
People familiar with the Aryan Brotherhood wonder whether even the threat of death would act as a deterrent to others.
"One certainly wonders sometimes what we've achieved by these kinds of trials," said William McGuigan, a San Diego defense attorney who has represented defendants from several prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia.
When inmates are approached about joining gangs, McGuigan said, "they tell them, 'You guys are going to join,' and if they say no, they're looking at the death penalty next week, not in 20 years. I don't think it does anything."
Some observers said the California trial will likely have more impact on the brotherhood than the verdict.
During four months of testimony, dozens of former gang members and prison officials testified in detail about the gang's operations, secret codes and rules. Testimony included explanations of a complex, coded alphabet; how to make invisible ink with urine; and how inmates passed messages between cells and different prisons.
"I think that the prosecution unfolded and exposed a lot of their tactics in this case. The toolbox has been exposed -- they're going to have to think up new tricks," said Melissa Carr, a special projects supervisor for the Anti-Defamation League who followed the trial closely.