Former Prison Gang Member Testifies in Murder Trial

A longtime of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang testifies against a gang leader on trial for two murders. The case, one of the largest capital cases ever undertaken, is one of several the government is pursuing against the Aryan Brotherhood. The witness, convicted murderer Kevin Roach, joined the federal protection program in 1988. The trial is being held at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana, Calif.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A prime witness against the Aryan Brotherhood is telling what he knows about the prison gang, which has allegedly carried out murders and brutal assaults behind bars. It's the latest development in a federal trial in Santa Ana, California. Federal prosecutors are trying to dismantle the gang and its violent grip on the nation's prisons.

NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from the courthouse. Carrie, who is this witness and why is his testimony so important?

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

His name is Kevin Roach, Michele, and he is one of the highest ranking members of the Aryan Brotherhood that we're going to hear from. To date, we've just heard from associates and hangers-on. But Roach has been telling the jury about attempted murders and murders that he either participated in or had heard about and had conversations with some of the leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood.

NORRIS: Who's actually on trial there? And what are the charges?

KAHN: There are four men that are on trial. And the government alleges that they are the kingpins of the Aryan Brotherhood. And two of these men, Barry the baron Mills and TD the Hulk Bingham, are facing death penalty charges in this case. It was 140 page indictment against the Aryan Brotherhood and they're charged with 32 murders and attempted murders and also conspiracy. And it is a racketeering case and they're trying to dismantle the organization that way, similar to the way the government used racketeering charges to dismantle the Mafia.

NORRIS: The gang members are being portrayed as ruthless killers. How is the defense trying to counter that?

KAHN: Well, the defendants are in the courtroom and they're not in their orange jumpsuits. They've been cleaned up, they're wearing nicely pressed shirts and clean shaven. They do have their distinctive bushy handlebar moustaches. They're also shackled at the waist and to the ground, but the jurors don't see any of that. There's a specially designed defendant booth for them, and so you can't see them from the waist down.

And more than that, just cleaning them up, what the defense has done is they're really attacking the credibility of the witnesses that are coming to testify against the defendants. The witnesses themselves are prison inmates. They, some of them committed murder. Kevin Roach, who came up this, that we're hearing from today, one of the first things that came out when he was on the stand was that he killed two people, attempted a murder on the outside and was drug running in the prison.

So they have a credibility issue to, that they're attacking, most of these witnesses.

NORRIS: Carrie, where do these alleged murders and assaults all take place?

KAHN: The prosecution alleges that they took place in the country's federal supermax prisons, in some of the most secure federal penitentiaries in the country. And it's quite interesting what we learned from the key witness today, Kevin Roach, on how the Aryan Brotherhood was able to communicate amongst each other in this federal lockup. They said that while they were housed at different blocks in the prison, they would all recreate in the same yard. And so they knew to go and bury what they called kites, tightly wadded up notes to each other. And they would bury them in the recreation yard in the same place.

And so then when, the next week, when the next prisoners were let out into the yard, they would know where to go and dig up the note and then that's how they communicated a lot of times.

NORRIS: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting from the Aryan Brotherhood trial in Santa Ana, California. Carrie, thanks a lot.

KAHN: You're welcome, Michele.

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