Making the Case Against the Aryan Brotherhood Gang

The trial of members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, continues in Southern California. Prosecutors say members of the prison gang are responsible for dozens of murders. Carrie Kahn joins Madeleine Brand to discuss a crucial new witness who is set to take stand this week, and the difficulties the prosecution has encountered in making the case.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand. A key witness against the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang is expected to testify this week. Four alleged kingpins of the notorious gang are on trial. They are charged with 32 murders and attempted murders and a variety of other crimes. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been covering the trial in Santa Ana, California, and she joins us now. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: So, tell us about this witness. Who is he?

KAHN: His name is Kevin Roach, and he was a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood. And he's pretty high up there. He's the highest-ranking former member that we'll hear from. He will testify that he heard and saw multiple murders committed inside the federal and state prisons.

BRAND: Now, tell us about the charges. I know two of those on trial are on trial for their life, essentially. What are they accused of?

KAHN: As you said before, there's 32 murders and attempted murders that were outlined in this indictment that the government has prepared against the Aryan Brotherhood. It was a 145-page indictment, so they are charged with a variety of crimes, and they're charged with racketeering, conspiracy, which is--usually we hear about Mafia kingpins, but this government is trying to break up this prison gang that they say have fought for control of the federal prisons.

BRAND: So these murders would take place inside the prisons?

KAHN: There were murders that took place inside the prisons, and the biggest racketeering conspiracy that they're charging the Aryan Brotherhood with was inciting a race war in Marion, Illinois in the late '90s, and those are the crimes that actually are bringing the death penalty to these two members. But there's 40 members of the Aryan Brotherhood that were indicted. Almost half of them have come to plea agreements with the government, but there are still as many as 16 that are facing the death penalty. And this is the first of several trials that we'll see against the Aryan Brotherhood.

The government has been amassing this prosecution against the Aryan Brotherhood for more than eight years. They've invested quite a lot of resources into it, and they really think that if they are successful in this first case, that they will be able to really deal a blow to this notorious and ruthless gang.

BRAND: And how successful have they been so far?

KAHN: Well, it's sort of a mixed bag. We've learned a lot about the Aryan Brotherhood and their violence and gambling activities, drug-dealing, murder, mayhem that they created inside the prison system, but their case is mostly formed by former members and people that have been in prison, people that are facing long sentences, life sentences, and even the death penalty. They have a difficult time bringing this case forward.

BRAND: So there's a credibility problem with these witnesses?

KAHN: Definitely a credibility, and also with their own clients, who actually are also shackled to the ground, but the jury doesn't see that. The defense has done a really good job in cleaning up these men. They're not in their orange prison jumpsuits. They are in very nicely pressed, starched, Oxford shirts. The men are in middle-aged. They all wear glasses. They look like grandfathers, except for they do have their signature bushy, handlebar mustaches, and you don't see that they're shackled to the ground.

The courtroom has been designed just for this trial. There's high security. There's at least 10 federal marshals in the courtroom at all time, and the defendant's box has a wooden panel, so that you can't see them from the waist down, and they are shackled around the waist and then secured to the ground, but the jury doesn't see that.

BRAND: And what is the defense arguing? That these guys are innocent? That they are, in effect, are grandfathers?

KAHN: They don't deny that they are members of the Aryan Brotherhood. What they do deny is that there was a conspiracy, because this is a racketeering trial. But they don't deny that they are member of the Aryan Brotherhood. But they really downplay any ideological connection that the men have any racist tendencies. They say that they were formed to provide protection for white inmates in a prison system that was populated mostly by blacks and Latino gangs, and they just formed for protection.

They also say one of the members is Jewish. He does have a tattoo of a Jewish star on one arm. On the other arm is a Nazi swastika. And then one of the defense attorneys told me that they're aspiring writers, and one even crochets for relatives and knits hats and scarves for relatives. So, that's their defense.

BRAND: That's the image that they want to portray.

KAHN: Yes.

BRAND: A sweet, grandfatherly image.

KAHN: Yes, they do. And they do have relatives. There are some relatives that are in the courtroom with them, and that assail the prosecution's case and say that the government is just putting a bunch of snitches and liars on the stand, and that will be proved out in the end.

BRAND: NPR's Carrie Kahn, thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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