MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In Southern California the trial of four leaders of the notorious Aryan Brotherhood prison gang is ending. Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. They've charged the four with ordering dozens of murders and plotting a race war inside the nation's maximum-security prisons.
Defense attorney's say the government is relying on shaky testimony from snitches who've been paid to lie. From Los Angeles, NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN reporting:
The case against the Aryan Brotherhood has taken four months to lay out in court, but it's based on years of investigating the gang, intercepting its mail and screening its phone calls.
(Soundbite of phone call)
Unidentified Man #1: This phone call is made by inmate Oresta Edamonte(ph) registration # 39678-133...
KAHN: Jurors heard the calls, read the letters and watched grainy videos of brutal prison yard fights; they also saw coded messages that were passed between Aryan Brothers. One allegedly from gang member T.D. The Hulk Bingham was written in urine. Prosecutors say when heated up, the makeshift invisible ink spelled out a declaration of war against black prisoners in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
(Soundbite of phone call)
Unidentified Man #3: Lewisburg, yeah, it went up bad right here. Yeah, the way I understand it two guys got killed over there. Yeah, yeah...
KAHN: This conversation between alleged Brotherhood members occurred the day after two black inmates were fatally stabbed in their cells. Prosecutors alleged that Bingham and the other three defendants conspired to kill the men, hoping to set off a race war throughout the federal prison system.
Defense lawyers say if the call proves anything it's that the brothers were trying to warn each other about escalating tensions and possible attacks. Those differences are at the crux of the case. Is the Brotherhood a collection of ruthless racist or just a group of raging white inmates trying to survive?
Former federal prosecutor Laurie Levinson says the government has charged the gang with racketeering and has a high burden of proof.
Ms. LAURIE LEVINSON (Former federal prosecutor): But there really isn't that much the prosecution has to prove. Under the RICO law they just have to show a pattern of racketeering activities. And even though the prosecution is charged much more in the indictment, they don't have to necessarily prove all those other acts.
KAHN: But Mark Fleming, who represents Barry The Barron Mills, the alleged leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, says the government is relying on testimony from prison snitches who have a reason to lie; most receive money and lighter prison sentences for their testimony.
And Fleming says many of the government's informants were housed together in the H Unit of Colorado's supermax prison.
MARK FLEMING (Defense Attorney): Corroboration between two snitches who had access to the same information before they testified is hardly corroboration.
KAHN: In H Unit, Fleming says the inmates had access to case files and plenty of time to get their stories straight. One informant and former Aryan Brotherhood member Danny Weeks says that's exactly what went on.
Mr. DANNY WEEKS (Former Aryan Brotherhood Member): In all my time, I've never seen nothing like that.
KAHN: Weeks, who is currently in a Santa Ana city jail just blocks from the federal court house, says life was great in H Unit.
Mr. WEEKS: Inside this little intelligence unit not only you can have just anything you want. You know, their bringing you laptop computers and we got color TV's with remote controls. And, you know, they're bringing us hot dogs, Carl's Jr., baby back ribs, it's crazy.
KAHN: Like many of the informants in this case, Weeks has given inconsistent statements and, according to one bureau a prisons employee, flip-flopped his allegiances every other week.
Ultimately, Weeks was not called to testify in the case, but some documents he smuggled out of H Unit were introduced as evidence. Now it's up to the jurors. They'll have to decide whether they'll trust people like Weeks, government informants with rap sheets rivaling those of the gang leaders.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.