The government called to the stand cutthroats and con men, prolific killers and proud lifelong outlaws. They raised their hands and swore to tell the truth.
One claimed he robbed banks to protest the plight of American Indians. One said he plunged a knife through a friend’s throat. One spoke of subduing a drug-addled enemy so he could be strangled with a braided bedsheet. One lost count of the men he had murdered.
For much of the five past months, jurors in the murder and racketeering trial against the Aryan Brotherhood have watched a bizarre, blood-curdling pageant of career criminals take the witness box at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana to testify against what prosecutors call one of the nation’s most ruthless prison gangs.
As portrayed by more than two dozen Brotherhood defectors and former associates, the gang was so fearsome, so quick to kill, that with just a few dozen members it controlled drug and gambling rackets in prisons nationwide. Over and over, witnesses pointed to the two graying men with the bald heads and biker mustaches chained in the first row of the defendants’ dock, Barry “The Baron” Mills and T.D. “The Hulk” Bingham, as its masterminds.
Friday afternoon, as jurors began deliberating the fates of Mills, Bingham and two other alleged Brotherhood leaders, they must decide: How far can the witnesses be trusted?
“The government has to use cooperators to infiltrate a prison gang such as this,” prosecutor Terri K. Flynn told jurors. Acknowledging some witnesses had long records, she said, “That is the exact type of person that the Aryan Brotherhood wanted as a member.”
But in closing arguments this week, defense attorneys hammered away at the credibility of what they called “snitches” and “snakes,” saying witnesses had ample reason to lie and, with access to court documents in the case, the opportunity to synchronize their fabrications. In many instances, defense lawyers argued, the government paid them thousands of dollars for their testimony, and dangled sweet legal deals to ensure it.
“Inmates lie and lie and lie,” said Mark F. Fleming, Mills’ attorney. “They’re asking you to place your trust in this collection of thieves and liars and perjurers in order to get a single conviction.”
The case, which involves 17 murders or attempted murders, rests not merely on the word of informers, prosecutors countered, but on a trove of documents seized from the gang. Among them: a gang membership roster naming the defendants, reading lists and elaborately coded messages.
Perhaps most damningly, prosecutors have produced a “mission statement” -- a single-spaced, typewritten page allegedly found in the Marion, Ill., prison cell of a Brotherhood leader -- outlining the gang’s structure and goals. The statement divides the gang into commissioners, council members, businessmen and enforcers. It lays out the Brotherhood oath: “I pledge my mind, heart and life to the A.B.” And it calls for the transformation of the gang from a bunch of “broke dysfunctional jailhouse bullies” into “the very best possible criminal organization.”
Defense attorney Kenneth Reed suggested that the Bureau of Prisons planted the document, and argued that a “dysfunctional prison gang” with leaders who were “long in the tooth” did not qualify as a criminal enterprise under federal racketeering laws.
The trial against Mills, Bingham, and alleged lesser Brotherhood leaders Edgar “The Snail” Hevle and Christopher Gibson took place on the ninth floor of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Santa Ana, in a courtroom outfitted with Nuremberg-like docks for the defendants, who are chained to the floor, and a witness box where inmate cooperators could also be shackled. Federal marshals, brought in from across the country, surrounded the inmates through the trial.
Jurors, whose identities have been kept secret, are expected to resume deliberations Monday.
If convicted, Hevle and Gibson face life in prison, while Mills and Bingham are eligible for the death penalty. All four are already serving long prison terms. If acquitted, Bingham is set to be released in 2010.
The case began with Mills slaying an inmate in an Atlanta prison in 1979 for stealing drugs from a Brotherhood member, a crime for which Mills was convicted in 1981 and is serving a life sentence. Now, prosecutors are charging the same murder as a racketeering act, though Mills’ attorney claims another inmate did it.
Prosecutors say the gang’s violence culminated in a “race war” that left two black inmates dead at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., in 1997. Called to the stand by the government, Al Benton, who said he was the prison’s highest-ranking Brotherhood member at the time, testified that he plunged a shiv into the throat of a black inmate he considered a friend.
Benton said he received a smuggled message from Bingham, who was being held at the Supermax in Florence, Colo., ordering him to wage war on blacks. The defense acknowledges that Bingham got a message to Benton, but maintains it was merely a warning to be on guard in an increasingly hostile racial climate.
The defense argued that Benton, whose eyes filled with tears when he discussed his friendship with Mills, decided to inform on the gang he loved because he would otherwise face the death penalty or life in shackled isolation for the Lewisburg murder. Instead, he was allowed to plead to an assault charge and received a nine-year sentence.
Prosecutors said the gang had just 100 members but could depend on legions of “associates” to do its bidding. But defense attorney Fleming ridiculed the government’s portrayal of the “all-reaching, all-knowing Aryan Brotherhood,” and said it was “ludicrous” that a gang comprising “one-tenth of 1% of the prison population” could wage war against enemies that vastly outnumbered it.
With access to each other and to court documents, Fleming argued, gang defectors were able to cobble together stories in exchange for money and reduced prison time.
“Some of these folks haven’t stepped on a blade of grass in 10, 15 years,” Fleming said.