updated 3/14/2006 5:59:09 PM ET 2006-03-14T22:59:09

A federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday that a leader of a violent and highly organized white supremacist prison gang ordered members to start a war against a black gang that left two rivals dead within 12 hours.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Emmick detailed the plot during his opening statement in one of the largest capital punishment cases in U.S. history.

The trial, which could last nine months, involves four alleged leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood. A sweeping racketeering indictment alleges members of the gang were involved in 32 murders and attempted murders over 30 years, most of them orchestrated by the four men on trial.

As many as 16 other defendants could face the death penalty at trials over the coming months, 19 others reached plea deals, and one has died.

“This case is fundamentally about power and control of the nation’s prisons,” Emmick told the jury Tuesday. “The indictment alleges the Aryan Brotherhood, including its members and associates, constitute a racketeering enterprise.”

Security was heavy at the federal courthouse, with a metal detector outside the courtroom door and two federal marshals searching those who entered.

Serving time for other crimes
All four alleged gang leaders are still serving time for other crimes, and all have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Attorney Dean Steward, representing alleged ringleader Barry “The Baron” Mills, said last week: “The reality is, federal penitentiaries are violent and dangerous places and all of these guys — white guys — are a small minority and they’re just trying to survive.”

Mills is serving two life terms for murdering an inmate in 1979. He could face death if convicted now of orchestrating the 1997 killings of two black inmates at a Pennsylvania prison.

Tyler Davis “The Hulk” Bingham, 58, could face death for the same crimes. He is in prison until 2010 on robbery and drug charges.

Also on trial are Edgar “The Snail” Hevle, 54, and Christopher Overton Gibson, 46. Hevle is eligible for release in five years and Gibson in 13; both could face life if convicted.

Messages allegedly passed through peanuts
The indictment alleges a web of conspiracies to murder inmates who offended gang members, cheated on drug deals, failed to comply with leaders’ orders or snitched to prison authorities.

The gang members would communicate by hiding tiny messages in mop handles, under rocks and in peanut halves glued back together, Emmick said. They speak to each other through air vents or toilet pipes, he said.

Emmick told the jury that two federal inmates in Lewisburg, Pa., received a letter in 1997 with a message written in invisible ink.

When the inmates heated it, the message read: “War with D.C. from T.D.,” a reference to D.C. Blacks, a black prison gang, and the first two initials of Bingham’s name, Emmick said.

“Twelve hours later, two black inmates were dead and two were injured in the same prison,” he said.

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