Trial Sheds Light on Aryan Brotherhood

Federal prosecutors in Santa Ana, Calif., are proceeding with what's being called the biggest capital murder case ever in the United States. Longtime members of the Aryan Brotherhood, turned government witnesses, are explaining how the prison gang carried out its deadly work over four decades.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The first trial in what has been described as the largest capital murder case in U.S. history began this week in Santa Ana, California. Federal prosecutors are trying four alleged leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood, an organization that's believed to have sponsored killings in federal penitentiaries nationwide. Tyler The Hulk Bingham and Barry The Baron Mills are believed to be among the top ranks of the Brotherhood, and to have played a hand in the worst of their activities. If convicted, they could face the death penalty. In all, the federal government has charged 40 alleged Brotherhood members with a variety of crimes, including racketeering and conspiracy.

NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us from NPR West.

Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: We've been hearing for some time that the Aryan Brotherhood is one of the most notorious prison gangs in the federal penitentiary system. What more have we learned this week?

KAHN: Well, between the opening arguments and the testimony that we heard this week of two former Aryan Brotherhood members, they're now collaborating with the government, we learned a lot more about this gang, and frankly, the federal penitentiary system. Authorities, you know, estimate that there's really no more than a hundred members of this gang, but through their ruthlessness, their violence, this brazen violence, killing in plain view of guards and inmates, and their strict code of conduct and loyalty, they've gained notoriety in the prison system.

We learned that they formed in the 60s. They communicate through passing notes in code and even written in invisible ink. These notes, they're written with citric acid and even with urine. And it was interesting. In the 70s, we learned that when they wanted to meet and reorganize, they acted as their own lawyers and subpoenaed each other, so that they could all be housed at the same California prison. And it was there that they worked out their organizational structure. And it's a three-member commission overseeing a council, and with associates below them. And that's how they decided who would be in and out, and also killed by the gang.

WERTHEIMER: This is a high profile case. The government has investigated them for five years; they've made 40 indictments. But many of the people who will stand trial over the next several months are already serving life sentences in prison. Why is the government going to so much trouble?

KAHN: It's true. The government says that this gang has been able to control much of the nation's prison population. And they're talking about dominating prison populations in the country's most secure institutions. Through the decades, they say, the Aryan Brotherhood has morphed into enormous criminal organization controlling drug smuggling and gambling inside the prison. And they were also concerned about the gang's violence extending beyond the prison walls once their members get out and continue to work for the gang.

And you're right, these men are spending life in prison, and prosecutors, they say they need this case and this trial to sentence these men to death, to have some sort of deterrent. And I spoke with one former prosecutor, and he says he thinks that it's already working, that since the indictments were handed down in 2002, they've already seen a decrease in the Aryan Brotherhood sanctioned violence.

WERTHEIMER: Carrie, what can the defense say to all this?

KAHN: Well, the defense, this is a racketeering case and the defense, the prosecution has to prove a conspiracy. And the defense doesn't really seem to, in their opening statements, didn't really appear to dispute that the Brotherhood exists. But they do dispute a lot of the allegations, and they just, they say that the government's case is based solely on snitches that are lying to get their own prison perks and easier sentences.

WERTHEIMER: Right.

KAHN: But the prosecution says that they do have a lot of evidence. And we'll hear. This is going to be a nine-month trial, so we'll hear a lot more about the gang.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Carrie Kahn, speaking from NPR West.

Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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