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In Santa Ana, California, four leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang were convicted today on charges of murder, conspiracy and racketeering. It was a victory for federal prosecutors. They brought the charges are part of an ongoing effort to dismantle the Brotherhood's violent and racist activities behind bars. Two of the four gang members, Barry Mills and Tyler Bingham, could get the death penalty, while the other two defendants may receive life sentences.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

The four defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit murders in order to extend their control over drug trafficking, gambling and other prisoners. The government also accused them of trying to foment a race war behind bars. Accused of these crimes were four very ordinary looking men, casually dressed, bespectacled, clean cut except for grizzled moustaches.

As the verdicts were read, defendants Barry the Baron Mills, Tyler the Hulk Bingham, Christopher Gibson and Edgar the Snail Hevley barely reacted, as if listening to some mildly boring testimony rather than the words that would determine their fate.

The difficulty faced by prosecutors in this case was that their witnesses were mostly felons themselves, former gang members, jailhouse informants who often seemed just as bad as the defendants. One convicted murderer, named Clifford Smith, admitted to being involved in several killings. He wasn't sure how many, anywhere from eight to 21, he said, finally telling the prosecutor “if you're good with 21, I'm good with 21.”

The picture of the Aryan Brotherhood painted by the witnesses was of a particularly ruthless gang who ordered murders and assaults with notes written in code, sometimes in invisible ink made from fruit juice or urine. They apparently saw themselves differently, taking inspiration from Nietzsche and Machiavelli. One witness aid there was a formal oath. Integrity, loyalty and silence comprise the principal ethics of honor, it began.

The defense had argued that their clients had only banded together to protect themselves in the violent and racially divided prison system. They also contended that the government's witnesses were perjurers who were bought off with cash or with promises of parole.

This case was particularly complex, requiring the jury to answer nearly 80 questions. It's also believed to be one of the largest federal capital cases in the United States. Tom Rosek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, explained that this trial is part of a much larger prosecution.

Mr. TOM ROSEK (U.S. Attorney's Office): These four men who have been convicted today are part of 40 people who were indicted by a grand jury on a host of federal charges related to their activities with the Aryan Brotherhood.

JAFFE: The remaining trials, he said, will take place over the next several months. Beyond this, Mr. Rosek was unable to comment since this is an ongoing trial. Hedley and Gibson will be sentenced on October 23. They could receive life in prison. Mills and Bingham could be sentenced to death for ordering the murders of two African American inmates. The penalty phase begins August 15 and could last three to four weeks.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, outside the federal courthouse in Santa Ana, California.

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