msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/13/2011 4:41:53 AM ET 2011-08-13T08:41:53

A man who authorities say led one of South Florida's most violent gangs was sentenced to 65 years in prison on racketeering charges Friday.

A Palm Beach County judge sentenced Futo Charles, 30, shortly after a jury convicted him of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering and two other drug charges, according to The Palm Beach Post. The conviction in the heavily guarded courthouse came days after a witness who planned to testify was gunned down in a parking lot.

Charles' Top 6 gang, formed by Haitian migrants, was linked to 14 homicides and more than 150 shootings in the past few years, including a fatal Christmas Eve shooting at a busy mall in 2006 — all part of a bloody gang war, authorities said. Estimates eventually put the gang's membership at more than 400.

'Harsh'
Charles' racketeering charge included multiple counts, including two shootings. His attorney, Marianne Rantala, pointed out that jurors found prosecutors had not linked Charles to the shootings, yet the judge still gave Charles the maximum sentence.

"It appeared that the sentence was going to be the maximum no matter what," Rantala said in an email. "My opinion of the sentence is that it was extremely overly harsh."

Rantala said she plans to appeal the case.

Witness Eguel Geffrard — a member of the gang — was supposed to testify in the trial on Monday, but police found him shot to death in a parking lot that same day.

Jurors get armed guards
Like many of Top 6's members, Geffrard was a suspect in a previous crime, but ultimately became a victim. Authorities say gang members have frequently turned on each other. No charges have been filed in Geffrard's death.

Local authorities turned to racketeering laws after struggling to bring anything other than minor drug charges against Top 6 members.

After Geffrard's slaying Monday, the judge ordered jurors to be partially sequestered with armed guards escorting them to and from the courthouse.

WPTV reported that jurors took less than three hours to decide Charles' fate.

Charles has never hid his affiliation with Top 6, but he has always maintained it is a rap group.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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