Jurors Told of Ruthless Aryan Brotherhood Gang
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. Prosecutors call it the largest capital punishment case in U.S. history. Four alleged leaders of one of the nation's most notorious prison gangs, the Aryan Brotherhood, are on trial in southern California. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN reporting:
Armed with a glossy PowerPoint presentation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Emmick outlined the government's eight year investigation of the Aryan Brotherhood. Reading off the first slide emblazoned with the gang's credo, "Blood in, Blood out," Emmick told the jurors that admission to the Aryan Brotherhood required killing someone. Leaving the group required death. The prosecutor went on to detail 15 murders, attempted murders, and ordered hits allegedly conducted by the defendants, all of whom sat in the courtroom shackled at the waist and secured to the ground.
Their chains, however, were obscured from jurors view by tall, wooden panels. And with their starched shirts, glasses, and long bushy mustaches, the aging men could easily be confused for someone's grandfather. Outside the courtroom, Melissa Carr, who has long followed the Aryan Brotherhood for the Anti-Defamation League, says the men cleaned up well.
Ms. MELISSA CARR (Anti-Defamation League): In their orange prison jumpsuits, they are a terrifying sight. They're the kind of characters who, if you were walking down the street and they were coming towards you, you would cross the street.
KAHN: The government is seeking the death penalty for two of the four defendants: Barry The Baron Mills and T.D. The Hulk Bingham. Edgar The Snail Hevle and Christopher Gibson are facing life without parole. Prosecutors say over the past four decades, the Aryan Brotherhood has grown from a small gang protecting white prisoners into a ruthless violent criminal enterprise, controlling drug smuggling and gambling inside some of the most secure federal lock-ups in the country.
The gang allegedly used an elaborate communications system of coded letters written in invisible ink--some smuggled into prisons by gang member's wives and girlfriends. Defendant Hevle's wife Janice said outside the courtroom that the government's case relies on informants, who she called snitches and rats.
Ms. JANICE HEVLE: And these are the same men that are murderers, liars--how are you going to build a case and believe something like that?
KAHN: In fact, defense attorneys say more than 90 percent of the government's case rests on the testimony of informants with criminal records rivaling the defendants. Most received shortened sentences, money, and prison perks in exchange for their testimony. Defense attorney Kenneth Reed represents Christopher Gibson.
Mr. KENNETH REED (Defense Attorney, Aryan Brotherhood trial): This is a what, six to seven month case? What they hope to prove, and what they will actually prove are two different things.
KAHN: In court, attorneys for the defendants downplayed the gang's ideological motive. T.D. Bingham's attorney told jurors that the 58-year-old prisoner is Jewish, and an aspiring writer. Mills attorney says his client likes to crochet hats and sweaters for relatives. Of the original 40 members indicted, 19 have already pleaded guilty, and will testify for prosecutors. Melissa Carr, of the Anti-Defamation League, says if successful, the government won't end the Aryan Brotherhood, but will deal it a blow.
Ms. CARR: We don't think it's going to make the Aryan Brotherhood go away for ever and ever and ever. What it does is it weakens the system. It leaves your membership to carry on for you, and it will take some time for the group to recover.
KAHN: Today, former high-ranking Aryan Brotherhood member Clifford Smith takes the stand. Like his ex-gang brethren, Smith will be chained and shackled. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.