Mar 15, 2006, Source: Reuters
Four prison gang leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood spent a quarter century trying to control life behind bars through murder and intimidation, a prosecutor said at their racketeering and conspiracy trial on Tuesday.
As the trial began under heavy security in Orange County, defense lawyers countered that their clients had merely banded together to survive amid violent racial warfare in maximum security US prisons.
The case against convicted killer and Aryan Brotherhood chief Barry "The Baron" Mills, his top lieutenant Tyler "The Hulk" Bingham, Christopher Gibson and Edgar "Snail" Hevle is the first salvo in a legal war that prosecutors hope will break the notorious gang.
Prosecutors may seek the death penalty against 16 members of the Aryan Brotherhood, including Mills and Bingham, in a sweeping case that they say ranks as one of the largest death penalty prosecutions in US history. Four other defendants are set for trial in October.
The Aryan Brotherhood "is particularly violent, disciplined, fearsome and committed to dominating the prison population through murder and threats of murder," Assistant US Attorney Michael Emmick told jurors in a courtroom ringed by federal officers and packed with reporters.
"They just kill anyone who shows disrespect and doesn’t follow their rules," Emmick said. "They succeeded in terrorizing the prison population and securing the AB’s position of authority and power."
Notes in secret code
Emmick said the four directed a series of murders and assaults throughout the prison system, communicating by notes – sometimes written in secret code or with invisible ink made with fruit juice or urine.
Michael White, an attorney for Bingham, said violence was common in US prisons but it was not ordered by Aryan Brotherhood leaders. "If (an inmate) thinks they have been disrespected and want to stab somebody, they don’t need word from 2,000 miles away – they just go ahead and act," he said.
White and two other defense attorneys charged that the government’s case was built on evidence from convicted felons testifying in exchange for favors. Despite its name, the Aryan Brotherhood was not a racist organization and was formed only to protect its members, White said. "These are guys who got together to survive prison."
The defendants are charged with directing or carrying out about a dozen murders or attempted murders and trying to instigate a race war with black inmates.
Emmick said the convicted Mafia boss John Gotti once hired the Ayran Brotherhood to kill a man who had fought him in a prison yard. But gang members were unable to carry out the contract because they could not find the intended victim.
The four defendants, who are normally housed in some of America’s toughest prisons, came to court dressed in civilian clothes, wearing glasses and sporting similar bushy mustaches.
They sat, shackled to the floor by chains at their ankles and waists, on a special riser in the courtroom and conferred with their lawyers.
Emmick told jurors the Aryan Brotherhood, also known as "the Brand," began at California’s San Quentin state prison in the 196Os and had an exclusive membership of only the most violent and loyal inmates.
It usually required a prospective member to commit murder before they could join – known as "blood in, blood out" or "making your bones."
An inmate marked for death was called "in the hat," Emmick said, and was typically stabbed with a homemade prison knife.