Trial of Aryan Brotherhood Leaders Wraps Up
The fates of four leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious prison gang known for its reign of terror throughout the federal prison system, will soon be in the hands of federal jurors.
The four men, on trial in Santa Ana, Calif., are charged with ordering dozens of murders and plotting a race war inside the nation's maximum-security prisons. They are being charged under the federal anti-racketeering law known as RICO. Defense attorneys argue that the government's case is based on shaky testimony from "snitches" who've been paid to lie.
The defendants are Barry "The Barron" Mills, Tyler Davis "The Hulk" Bingham, Edgar "The Snail" Hevle and Christopher Overton Gibson. Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Bingham and Mills.
The inmates are implicated in many of the 32 murders and attempted murders detailed in a federal indictment against the white supremacist gang, which was founded in 1964 at California's San Quentin prison.
The case against the Aryan Brotherhood has taken four months to lay out in court, but it's based on years of investigating the gang, intercepting its mail and screening its phone calls. Jurors heard taped calls and watched grainy videos of brutal prison-yard fights. They also saw coded messages passed between AB members. One, allegedly from Bingham, was written in urine. Prosecutors say when heated up, the makeshift invisible ink spelled out a declaration of war against black prisoners in Lewisburg, Pa.
In a taped telephone conversation played in court, one AB member can be heard saying to a gang brother: "The way I understand it, a few guys got killed up there," adding, "I hear it's white guys."
The conversation took place the day after two black inmates at Lewisburg were brutally stabbed in their cells. Prosecutors allege that Bingham and the other three defendants conspired to kill the men, hoping to set off a race war throughout the federal prison system.
Defense lawyers say if the call proves anything, it's that the gang members were trying to warn each other about escalating racial tensions and possible attacks.
Those differing interpretations are at the crux of the case: Is the Brotherhood a group of ruthless racists bent on using murder and mayhem to gain power, as prosecutors claim? Or is it just a small group of aging white men forced to gang up along racial lines in order to survive in the violent prison system, as the defense claims?
Former federal prosecutor Laurie Levinson says the government has charged the gang with racketeering and has a high burden of proof.
"But there really isn't that much that the prosecution has to prove," Levinson says, "because under the RICO law, they only have to show a pattern of racketeering activities. And even though the prosecution has charged much more in the indictment, they really don't have to prove all those other acts."
In her closing arguments this week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Terri Flynn stressed that point to the jury, but insisted that during the trial, dozens of witnesses corroborated and even cross-corroborated every violent act.
But Mark Fleming, who represents Mills, the alleged leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, argues that the stream of witnesses presented by the government represent a form of "cross-contamination." He says the government is relying on testimony from prison snitches who have a reason to lie. Most received money and lighter prison sentences for their testimony.
Fleming says many of the government's informants were housed together in the H unit of the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo. There, Fleming claims, the inmates had access to a Bureau of Prisons computer, case files and plenty of time to get their stories straight.
"Corroboration between two snitches who had access to the same information is hardly corroboration," Fleming says.
Danny Weeks, an informant and former AB member, says that's exactly what happened. Weeks, who is currently in a Santa Ana city jail just blocks from the federal courthouse, says life was cozy in the H unit.
"Inside this intelligence unit, you could have anything you want," Weeks says. "They are bringing you laptop computers, they are bringing you Carl's Jr. hot dogs and baby-back ribs. It's crazy."
Like many of the informants in this case, Weeks has given inconsistent statements and, according to one Bureau of Prisons employee, has flip-flopped his allegiances every other week. Ultimately, Weeks was not called to testify in the case, but some documents he smuggled out of the H unit were introduced as evidence.
Now it's up to the jurors. They'll have to decide whether they'll trust people like Weeks -- government informants with rap sheets rivaling those of the gang leaders.
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