Murder Trial of White-Supremacist Gang Begins in California

Members of the prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood go on trial Tuesday in a southern California courtroom. Federal prosecutors have linked the white-supremacist gang to a string of murders and attempted murders in California prisons.

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One of the largest death penalty cases in U.S. history begins today in a federal courtroom in Orange County, California. It's the first in a series of trials on federal racketeering charges for members of the violent prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood.

Judy Campbell, of member station KQED in San Francisco, has more.

JUDY CAMPBELL (Reporter, KQED): The Aryan Brotherhood is a white supremacist gang that formed in San Quentin Prison in the racially charged 60s as a reaction to growing black militancy in prison. A decade since, it's spread into federal prisons nationwide and it's now at the center of the racial violence that plagues California's prison system. Prosecutors say the gang is a tightly controlled, mafia-like organization, who's leaders, housed in California's most isolated super max penitentiaries order hits and transact drug deals within the prison and beyond its walls.

Kurt Bennett(ph), A.K.A. Ghost, is a former member of an associated gang, the Nazi Lowriders. Bennett says he used to carry hit lists, written in archaic complex codes, from one prison to another for the Aryan Brotherhood, often transporting them when he was leaving prison for a court hearing.

Mr. KURT BENNETT (Former Member, Nazi Lowriders): They shoot me the list, it's already wrapped up real tight in latex gloves, right? And I either put it in my rectum or I swallow it.

CAMPBELL: Bennett says when he'd get to court he'd retrieve the message and pass on the list of people to be killed the scope of which, Bennett says, federal prosecutors only hint at.

Mr. BENNETT: Sometimes, there's up to 200, 300 people on this list, ma'am.

CAMPBELL: Bennett, who spoke by phone from a county jail, has left the gang and is now cooperating with authorities, but is not involved in this case. His account of his time in the gang cannot be confirmed, but in many aspects, it's consistent with law enforcement investigations. He says the Aryan Brotherhood is one of the most ruthless and most feared of all prison gangs.

Mr. BENNETT: We hug each other like, what's up, brother, right? I have seen guys getting hugged by one guy while the guy behind him runs a knife all the way through his body. You never know when it's gonna come. You can be thinking you're a high-held member and the next thing you know, you've got a knife sticking out of your heart.

CAMPBELL: In a 140-page indictment, federal prosecutors detail a vast Web of conspiracy, culminating in 32 murders or attempted murders in and out of prison. Federal investigations revealed bloody attacks over minor slights.

Gregory Jessner, the former deputy U.S. attorney who first brought the indictment says racist ideology has taken a back seat in recent years, as the organization has grown into more of a traditional crime mob.

Mr. GREGORY JESSNER (Former Deputy U.S. Attorney): Part of it is moneymaking activities, allegedly involving gambling, drugs, contract murders, things of that sort. And part of it is just dominance and prestige within the present system.

CAMPBELL: Over the past decade, federal authorities have attempted to curb prison gangs through racketeering laws with mixed success. This indictment, against the Aryan Brotherhood, is unique for its sheer size: 40 men and women indicted. Of those, almost half have cut deals; of the remaining, up to 16 could face the death penalty if they're convicted. Prosecutors say the death penalty is the only deterrent left for inmates who are already resigned to spending their life in prison.

But many doubt the prosecution will have much of an impact.

Mr. CHARLES CARBONE (Attorney for Prisoner Rights): Unless they dismantle the impetus and the incentives for people to join gangs, if they knock out a few generals or a few high-ranking members, there's a whole cadre of other prisoners who are just waiting to step into that particular role.

CAMPBELL: Prisoner rights attorney Charles Carbone says inmates join gangs for protection and power--and in prisons with few other alternatives, as the only way to improve their quality of life.

Mr. CARBONE: I think they will probably maim the gang, but will they kill the gang? Probably not.

CAMPBELL: Defense attorneys say the government is relying too heavily on unreliable prison informers who they say were offered deals to testify. The first of the trials begins today for four of the alleged gang members. Security will be tight. The courtroom will be outfitted with a special metal detector and a special defendant table, designed to hide the fact that inmates are chained to the floor. One of the defense witnesses is thought of as so dangerous, he'll be brought in Hannibal Lecter style: in a cage in the courtroom.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell in San Francisco.

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