Federal prosecutors 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 saw the fruits of its labor: a sweeping verdict that convicted four top Aryan Brotherhood leaders of murder, conspiracy and racketeering and made two of the defendants eligible for the death penalty.
Yet, as prosecutors celebrated, legal analysts and prison gang experts questioned whether the government’s near-complete victory will translate into the eventual demise of the brotherhood and a reduction in prison violence.
“It was very successful and I think that they will use the racketeering charge again,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor who has tried prison murder cases.
“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 still 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 punishment.
Of the 40 people arrested in 2002, more than a dozen could face the death penalty. Many of them are scheduled to face juries in two separate trials in Los Angeles later this year.
But people familiar with the Aryan Brotherhood wonder whether even the threat of death will be enough to prevent others from joining the gang.
“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 different prison gangs, including the Hells Angels, the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia.
“When they’re approached about joining these kinds of gangs, very violent gangs, 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,” he said. “I don’t think it does anything.”
Levenson and others also noted that using the federal racketeering statute, which was created to target criminal enterprises like the Mafia and not prison gangs, has met with mixed success.
When prosecutors applied it in the 2004 trial of David Michael Sahakian and two other Aryan Brotherhood members in Illinois, the result was a hung jury on the main charges of murder and conspiracy.
Sahakian will be retried later this year in Los Angeles.
Some observers said the California trial itself 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 great 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 along messages between cells and even 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.
“I think it sends a very strong message to the prison gang system, that these kinds of things aren’t going to be tolerated.”