updated 8/18/2006 8:46:33 AM ET 2006-08-18T12:46:33

Two Aryan Brotherhood gang leaders convicted of murder and eligible for the death penalty have the right to confront their accusers during their upcoming sentencing hearing, a federal judge ruled in a decision that could have wide-ranging implications for the U.S. court system.

U.S. District Judge Oliver O. Carter’s ruling Thursday prevents the government from making its case for the execution of Barry “The Baron” Mills and Tyler “The Hulk” Bingham purely on documents, transcripts and third-person accounts by prison officials.

The two kingpins of the white supremacist prison gang were convicted last month of murder, conspiracy and racketeering charges in crimes that go back as far as 30 years.

Lawyers said the ruling on the sentencing phase of their trial, scheduled to being Aug. 28, could be used as persuasive evidence in future capital cases on both the state and federal level.

“Although it’s not a binding precedent, it’s another arrow in the quiver,” said Mills’ attorney Dean Steward.

During a hearing on the issue this week, the judge had expressed concern about the impact his decision might have on interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Crawford vs. Washington, which involves the right of defendants to confront accusers.

‘Increased scrutiny is required’
In his ruling Thursday, Carter said he had determined that the 2004 Supreme Court decision does in fact extend to sentencing hearings in federal death penalty cases.

“Because the death penalty is uniquely different in its finality and severity, increased scrutiny is required at every step of the capital process to ensure that death is the appropriate penalty,” Carter wrote.

He said his ruling was “in line with maturing federal death penalty jurisprudence and its recognition of the need for increased reliability in capital sentencing.”

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said he had not yet read the ruling and could not comment. He had said previously that the government’s case during sentencing would be built largely on documentary evidence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Wolfe argued at a hearing Tuesday that it would be difficult to find witnesses to testify. In an effort to document one alleged crime, Wolfe said he found one witness dead and two others missing.

Feds relied on old testimony
However, the judge noted the government chose “to rely on proof of incidents that occurred over 30 years ago” and pointed to prosecutors seeking to use testimony of a dead witness who said Mills ordered him to murder another inmate in 1980.

“This is precisely the type of uncross-examined accusatory testimony that the Sixth Amendment protects against,” he said.

The judge said the government’s case will not be devastated by the ruling because much of its documentary evidence can be presented to the jury.

The Aryan Brotherhood prosecution has been described as one of the largest death penalty cases in U.S. history.

Witnesses described how the gang, founded in 1964 at California’s San Quentin prison, used brutality and murder to control drug dealing in some of the nation’s toughest lockups. A federal indictment against dozens of the gang’s members detailed 32 murders and attempted murders.

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