Prison gang trial reveals a treacherous world
Thick neck twitching, eyes drifting out of sync, Clifford Eugene Smith is not the most credible of witnesses: He says he is a “drug fiend,” estimates having murdered “about” 20 inmates over the years and lies on the stand so often that he recently committed perjury about committing perjury.
Yet for the second time this year, federal prosecutors called Smith, 53, to testify against members of his former prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood.
In this go-round, prosecutors charge that Robert “Blinky” Griffin, 58, and John “Youngster” Stinson, 52, ordered a series of murders in an effort to create a more powerful, disciplined criminal organization and to expand drug and extortion rackets. The case went to a jury in Los Angeles on Dec. 19.
The obstacle for the government, as evidenced by Smith’s volatile and often colorful testimony, is that the only people who can testify about the gang’s inner workings are hulking, tattooed miscreants who might scare the jurors more than the defendants.
By contrast, Stinson looked downright scholarly in court, typing on a laptop, thin and pale with a whitening goatee and tortoiseshell glasses. Griffin, in sweater vests and crisp white tennis shoes, chatted amiably with his two attorneys.
Each faces a life term without parole if convicted of racketeering. Stinson is already serving that sentence for a Long Beach murder. Griffin, who has been in prison since 1970 for robbery and for stabbing an inmate in the eye, could be paroled in several years. Both have been held more than 15 years in the most restrictive wing of Pelican Bay State Prison, where they have no physical contact with other inmates and are in their cells 23 hours of most days.
In June, a U.S. district judge in Northern California ruled that Griffin must be released from the wing because authorities had provided no evidence that he was still an active member of the Aryan Brotherhood, also called the AB or the Brand. Griffin’s attorneys say he dropped out of the gang nearly 20 years ago.
In Los Angeles, prosecutors called this a “crock” and echoed a witness who said Griffin was “commissioner among commissioners” in the gang.
This is the second major trial stemming from an October 2002 racketeering indictment meant to wipe out the prison gang. The 140-page indictment named 40 reputed members and alleged a sophisticated conspiracy that included 32 murders since 1979.
Initially, 16 faced the death penalty. Now 10 do.
During six weeks of testimony in Griffin’s and Stinson’s trial, the jury was introduced to a sordid, treacherous, unflinchingly violent world -- where “brothers” smuggle knives and messages in their rectums, where they study law and Machiavelli and ancient code-writing to manipulate the system, and where the slightest suspicion of snitching calls for instant death.
“If the AB cannot kill a cooperator, they will kill a member of the cooperator’s family,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Childs said in the trial’s opening.
The alleged criminal acts in the case span 25 years, including six murders from 1982 to 1997.
Despite the restrictions at Pelican Bay, which is just north of Crescent City, Brand members managed to communicate in the law library, which became a nerve center for the gang, according to the prosecution. To testify to this, a former member named Brian “Dead Eye” Healy took the stand -- shackles clanging, his neck black with tattoos, the sides of his shaved head furrowed with muscle.
Healy testified that Stinson ordered him one day in the law library to “cell up” with a suspected informer named Arthur Ruffo and gain his trust before pouncing.
On Feb. 7, 1996, Healy strangled Ruffo slowly in his cell, trying not to leave bruises.
Healy testified that he had nothing personal against Ruffo, but that the commission wanted him dead and he had to comply.
On cross-examination, attorney Michael Crain tried to discredit this.
“He was an obnoxious guy, wasn’t he?” asked Crain.
“Didn’t he disrespect you?”
“Well, was there a time when Ruffo would disrespect you by masturbating in front of female guards and get you very worked up about that?”
“Yeah, he done that one time.” Jurors watched Healy grow visibly angry.
The defense contends that the prosecution is conflating random murders into a conspiracy and that people like Smith and Healy are happy to help the government in exchange for favors, including money, favorable comments to the parole board and less restrictive housing.
“These are people who have nothing in their lives to trade but lies,” Crain argued.
The Aryan Brotherhood began among Irish American inmates in San Quentin in the 1960s to protect themselves from black and Latino gangs. In 1982, prison officials statewide tried to cut down on a wave of violence by separating the gangs. Many of the Aryan Brotherhood members were put together in the Palm Hall unit at the California Institution for Men at Chino.
The prosecution alleges it was there that Griffin, Stinson and others hatched a plan to organize the gang into a hierarchical enterprise with a strict code of conduct.
One edict: Family members of snitches in protective custody were fair targets. When a snitch testified against Griffin in 1982, the Brand shot his father to death in his Temple City home, prosecutors alleged.
Another: A three-man commission had to approve the killing of any “brother.”
Smith testified that he had to beg Griffin to let him kill a heroin addict named Steven Clark.
“He called me a punk in front of my daughter,” Smith testified. “I’d been to trying to get Griffin to let me kill him for months.”
When he got the approval, Smith said, he stabbed Clark 37 times.
The defense again depicted the murder as an act of individual rage and managed to draw Smith into a short cursing rant about how much he loathed Clark even now, 24 years after killing him.
To the prosecution, that murder was a critical test of the new hierarchy that resulted in a key piece of physical evidence, the so-called Masterson kite.
Under the new rules, Griffin had to explain the decision to kill Clark to the one commissioner who was not in Chino at the time, Robert Crane. Because their communications were monitored, he would send word in a kite, a tiny smuggled note.
A prisoner who was about to be transferred from Chino, Michael Masterson, was the Brand associate assigned to “keister” the kite and deliver it to Crane in San Quentin.
Guards intercepted it. The Masterson kite, prosecutors contend, discussed all sorts of Brotherhood business, including three murders, its shifting relationship with the Mexican Mafia and a potential war with the Crips.
The note is key for prosecutors to show that the violence amounted to racketeering.
“We’ll face them sooner or later, and I figure we should strike first,” Griffin wrote. “I don’t want to jump the gun and have it look like we’re back w/ the Mex’s.”
Crain tried to discredit Masterson on the stand as a paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices, leading to what may be one of the most bizarre questions ever asked by a federal prosecutor in court.
“Mr. Masterson,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Aveis asked on redirect, “did a voice in your head tell you to put a kite up your keister in July 1982?”