Archive for June, 2009

Feds arrest head of anti-gang group in LA

June 25, 2009
By THOMAS WATKINS, Associated Press Writer Thomas Watkins, Associated Press Writer Thu Jun 25, 12:04 am ET

LOS ANGELES – A man who said he left a ruthless street gang in Central America and later won praise for his anti-gang work in Los Angeles was arrested Wednesday by authorities who allege he conspired to kill a rival even as he spoke out against gang life.

Alex Sanchez, 37, who heads the local office of the nonprofit Homies Unidos anti-gang group, was taken into custody at his Bellflower home on federal racketeering charges, authorities said.

The indictment names 24 leaders, members and associates of MS-13, part of the Mara Salvatrucha gang affiliated with the Mexican Mafia prison gang.

It alleges crimes that include seven murders, eight conspiracies to commit murder, and gun and narcotics offenses since 1995. Sixteen of those named were already in custody. Four others, including Sanchez, were arrested Wednesday.

The alleged crimes by Sanchez occurred after he returned from El Salvador in 1996 and publicly decried gang life.

The indictment said he went by the nickname Rebelde, or rebel, and was a shot-caller for the Normandie contingent of MS-13. He and three others are accused in the indictment of conspiring to murder a man identified by authorities as Walter Lacinos “for the purpose of maintaining and increasing their position in MS-13.”

In May 2006, Lacinos was killed in El Salvador.

No other details were provided in the indictment. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney George Cardona declined to provide any specifics beyond the court filing.

Shot-callers manage the narcotics operations in certain gang territories, collect extortion payments and resolve disputes, the indictment states.

Mara Salvatrucha was formed in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by immigrants fleeing the El Salvador civil war. The gang spread as members were deported to their home country and is now a major international criminal enterprise known for callous killings carried out by its members, many of whom are heavily tattooed with shaved heads.

Five others named in the indictment, not including Sanchez, conspired to murder a veteran gang detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, authorities said.

Known as an anti-gang worker, Sanchez has testified as an expert witness in criminal cases, lobbied for better intervention and prevention programs, spoken to youths about the depressing consequences of gang life and been widely quoted in the media, including by The Associated Press.

Luis Enrique Guzman, a community organizer at the Los Angeles Homies Unidos office, said the group would have no immediate comment.

Luis Romero, director of the Homies Unidos office in El Salvador, said the organization did not accept the allegations against Sanchez.

“We know that Homies Unidos U.S.A. is doing great work in the reinsertion and rehabilitation of young people,” Romero said.

He said he had no details on the charges.

Asked what he thought prompted the allegations, he said, “these are the famous smoke screens, things that they use, things that they have not been able to solve and they take action without previously investigating.”

Sanchez arrived in Los Angeles at age 7 from El Salvador and joined Mara Salvatrucha when he was 14. He was jailed three times for minor offenses and deported to El Salvador in 1994.

He told the AP in a March interview that in his home country he had to live on the streets, fleeing death squads and gangs who threatened to kill him because they believed him a rival.

He returned illegally to Los Angeles in 1995. Authorities tried to deport him a second time, but he was granted political asylum after saying police picked him up because he had testified against officers in the Rampart police corruption scandal.

Several people spoke in his defense, including Tom Hayden, a former student radical and state senator.

In July 2002, Sanchez received political asylum after officials determined his life would be in danger if he returned to El Salvador.

It was the latest instance in which an anti-gang advocate has been arrested. In January, Marlo “Bow Wow” Jones was arrested in the robbing and beating of a rapper with the musical group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in his Universal City hotel room. At the time, Jones was working as a gang intervention worker.

Last year, Hector “Big Weasel” Marroquin, a former gang member in suburban Los Angeles who founded an anti-violence group, was sentenced to eight years in prison for selling assault weapons.

Civil rights lawyer and gang expert Connie Rice said anti-gang workers sometimes struggle to completely leave behind gang affiliations.

“The best ones are the ones who have completely gotten out of the life, but kept the relationships and still are respected,” she said. “But they are the exception and not the rule. Most of these guys are go-betweens, some act as buffers and some are still in the gang.”

Rice said she had wondered about Sanchez because he had been absent from community meetings aimed at reducing MS-13 violence.

“The thing that makes it really complicated is that Alex did really good work,” she said. “He helped a lot of kids, put a lot of kids in school.”

Homies Unidos was founded in 1996 in El Salvador. Sanchez helped establish the Los Angeles office the following year.

The office has helped remove tattoos from more than 240 gang members.

FBI officials said everyone named on the indictment could face up to 25 years to life in prison, while those charged with murder could face the death penalty. No one else from Homies Unidos was named in the indictment.


Associated Press Writer Marcos Aleman in El Salvador contributed to this story


Off-duty officer shoots 2 in lot after Angels game

June 25, 2009

ANAHEIM, Calif. – An off-duty police officer shot and wounded two men who had assaulted him in the crowded Angel Stadium parking lot after Wednesday night’s Colorado RockiesLos Angeles Angels game, authorities said.

The officer, who was walking to his car with his wife and two small children about 25 minutes after the game, was hit in the head with beer bottles, police Sgt. Tim Schmidt said.

“We think he was the victim of a crime,” Schmidt said.

The officer called a dispatcher at his department and asked for help, saying two men had choked him and asked him to get away from his car, Sgt. Rick Martinez said.

The off-duty officer then shot the men with his duty weapon, Martinez said. Police did not immediately identify the officer or the shooting victims.

One man was shot in the chin and was in critical condition, the other was shot in the upper arm and in serious but stable condition.

The officer also was taken to a hospital with a head wound, but was released early Thursday, Martinez said.

No one else in the parking lot was hurt, Martinez said.

The Orange County District Attorney’s office joined the Anaheim Police department in investigating the incident, which is required in officer-involved shootings.

The Angels had beaten the Rockies 11-3 earlier in the evening.

Rachel Cordova was among the startled and confused fans in the parking lot.

“We heard three shots and turned around and I thought, ‘Those are gun shots,'” Cordova told KNX radio. “One of the guys I was with said ‘No, it’s not’ but then we heard sirens.”

Cordova said she then walked toward the scene.

“I left there and saw a young, maybe 20-year-old male laying on the ground without his shirt, and they were attending to him,” she said.

The shooting was one of three major violent incidents at Southern California ballparks this season. A man died two days after getting into a fight on opening day at Angel Stadium in April, and another man was stabbed multiple times at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles after that team’s home opener but survived.

High court says convicts lack right to DNA testing

June 25, 2009
By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Writer Mark Sherman, Associated Press Writer Thu Jun 18, 3:27 pm ET

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Thursday that a convicted rapist has no constitutional right to test biological evidence used at his trial in Alaska years earlier, leaving it to the states to decide when prisoners get access to genetic evidence that might prove their innocence.

In a 5-4 vote, with the conservative justices in the majority, the court said it would not second-guess states or force them routinely to look again at criminal convictions.

William Osborne, convicted in a brutal assault on a prostitute in Alaska 16 years ago, sued for the right to test the contents of a blue condom the victim says was used by her attacker. A federal appeals court said he had a right to conduct the test.

Alaska is one of only three states without a law that gives convicts access to genetic evidence. The others are Massachusetts and Oklahoma.

Testing so far has led to the exoneration of 240 people who had been found guilty of murder, rape and other violent crimes, according to the Innocence Project, which works to free people who were wrongly convicted.

But Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion, said the states have moved quickly to grapple with the challenges and opportunities presented by advances in genetic testing.

“To suddenly constitutionalize this area would short-circuit what looks to be a prompt and considered legislative response,” Roberts said.

The chief justice said that new technology that was not available at trial should not throw fairly won convictions into doubt. “The dilemma is how to harness DNA’s power to prove innocence without unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice,” he said.

Dissenting liberal justices and advocates for prisoners who seek genetic testing complained that the court is penalizing a small group of inmates who lack access to a simple test that would conclusively show their innocence, or reaffirm their guilt.

“The fact that nearly all the states have now recognized some postconviction right to DNA evidence makes it more, not less, appropriate to recognize a limited federal right to such evidence in cases where litigants are unfairly barred from obtaining relief in state court,” Justice John Paul Stevens said.

Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of The Innocence Project who argued Osborne’s case at the Supreme Court, said the ruling probably would not affect the vast majority of inmates seeking DNA testing.

But, Neufeld said, “There is no question that a small group of innocent people — and it is a small group — will languish in prison because they can’t get access to the evidence.”

The Obama administration, picking up the argument first made by the Bush administration, urged the court to reject the appeals court ruling and insist that inmates at least swear under oath to their innocence before being given access to the evidence. The federal DNA testing law has such a requirement.

In some states, laws limit testing to capital crimes or rule out after-the-fact tests for people who confess.

The woman in Alaska was raped, beaten with an ax handle, shot in the head and left for dead in a snow bank near Anchorage International Airport. The condom that was found nearby was used in the assault, she said.

The woman, who is white, identified Osborne, who is black, as one of her attackers. Another man also convicted in the attack has repeatedly incriminated him. Osborne himself described the assault in detail when he admitted his guilt under oath to the parole board in 2004.

In many exoneration cases, eyewitnesses picked out the wrong man, often with the victim of one race incorrectly identifying someone of a different color.

Osborne’s lawyer passed up advanced DNA testing at the time of his trial, fearing it could conclusively link him to the crime. A less-refined test by the state showed that the semen did not belong to other suspects but could be from Osborne, as well as about 15 percent of all African-American men.

Osborne is awaiting sentencing on another conviction, a robbery he committed after his parole.

The case is District Attorney’s Office v. Osborne, 08-6.

Court to rule on federal sex offenders law

June 25, 2009

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of a federal law that permits sex offenders to be kept behind bars after they complete their prison terms.

The justices, acting Monday, say they will consider the Obama administration’s appeal of a lower court ruling that invalidated the law.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled in January that Congress overstepped its authority when it enacted a law allowing for indefinite commitment of people who are considered “sexually dangerous.”

In April, Chief Justice John Roberts granted an administration request to block the release of up to 77 inmates at a federal prison in North Carolina. These were people whose prison terms for sex offenses were ending. The justice’s order was designed to allow time for the high court to consider the administration’s appeal.

The challenge to the law was brought by four men who served prison terms ranging from three to eight years for possession of child pornography or sexual abuse of a minor. Their confinement was supposed to end more than two years ago, but the government determined that there would be a risk of sexually violent conduct or child molestation if they were released.

A fifth man who also was part of the legal challenge was charged with child sex abuse, but declared incompetent to stand trial.

Civil commitment was authorized by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which President George W. Bush signed in July 2006. The act, named after the son of “America’s Most Wanted” television host John Walsh, also establishes a national sex offender registry, increases punishments for some federal crimes against children and strengthens child pornography protections. Those provisions are not being challenged.

State laws allowing civil commitments of sex offenders also are unaffected.

The case will be argued in the court’s next term, which begins in October.

The case is U.S. v. Comstock, 08-1224.

Court to tackle clarity of Miranda warnings again

June 25, 2009
By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN, Associated Press Writer Michael J. Sniffen, Associated Press Writer Mon Jun 22, 5:36 pm ET

WASHINGTON – “You have the right to remain silent.” Most people only hear those words while watching cop shows on TV. They usually zone out for the rest of the now familiar Miranda warning to people under arrest.

But in the real world, the Supreme Court is still listening to the words that follow. It agreed Monday to hear another case over just how explicit that phrasing must be.

In its landmark 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling, the high court set out to protect the constitutional right of people not to incriminate themselves once in custody. They dealt a blow to those officers who bullied or beat false confessions out of suspects. The justices said the police have to tell defendants they can have a lawyer represent them, even if they can’t afford one.

Since 1966, dozens of prosecutors and defendants have asked the court to clarify its ruling. The court has addressed many of those appeals and reaffirmed its basic ruling in 2000.

Along the way, the justices made clear they don’t insist that every police officer use precisely the same words, so long as the important details are clear, even to people with no legal training or little or no schooling.

Monday they agreed to examine what the Tampa, Fla., police told Kevin Dewayne Powell after his arrest on Aug. 10, 2004. Powell was convicted of possessing a firearm. As a convicted felon, he wasn’t allowed to have one. Powell told Tampa officer Salvatore Augeri he bought the weapon “off the street” for $150 for his protection.

But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction on grounds the Tampa police didn’t adequately convey to Powell that he was allowed to have a lawyer with him during questioning.

Florida law enforcement, in the person of chief assistant attorney general Robert J. Krauss, asked the Supreme Court to decide the Tampa police gave Powell a clear enough Miranda warning. On behalf of Powell, Cynthia Dodge, an assistant public defender in Polk County, Fla., argued in a brief that the justices should let the Florida ruling stand because it conformed to previous Miranda rulings and also relied on Florida‘s own constitution.

Before he confessed to Augeri, Powell signed a statement that said he could remain silent and, if he did talk, what he said could be used against him in court. The statement added:

“You have the right to talk to a lawyer before answering any of our questions. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed for you without cost and before any questioning. You have the right to use any of these rights at any time you want during this interview.”

The Supreme Court’s original Miranda ruling said whatever words the police used they had to make clear that a suspect could “have the lawyer with him during interrogation.”

Florida’s highest court found the Tampa warning fell short of this essential element because Powell was “never unequivocally informed that he had the right to have an attorney present at all times” during the police interview and limited the narrower right “to talk to” counsel to the period “before answering any of our questions.” The Florida justices ruled that the last sentence of what Powell signed “did not supply the missing warning of the right to have counsel present during police questioning because a right that has never been expressed cannot be reiterated.”

Dodge said the warning to Powell implied that his right to counsel was limited to a conversation before the police began questioning.

For the state, Krauss argued that only “a strained, literalistic reading, inattentive to context” could conclude Powell could not have a lawyer present during questioning. “While the warning at issue may not be the most elegant formulation of Miranda warnings,” Krauss wrote, “the test is reasonable clarity, not elegance.”

Krauss said the Supreme Court should resolve differences between federal circuit courts of appeals on how explicit police must be that a lawyer can sit in on their interrogations.

The case is 08-1175, Florida v. Powell.

Court rules for defendants on crime lab reports

June 25, 2009

Associated Press via Yahoo! News

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court says criminal defendants have a constitutional right to cross-examine the forensic analysts who prepare laboratory reports on illegal drugs and other evidence used at trial.

The court on Thursday ruled 5-4 for a defendant who was convicted of cocaine trafficking, partly because of crime lab analysis.

Luis Melendez-Diaz challenged lab analysis that confirmed cocaine was in plastic bags found in the car he was riding in. Rather than accept the report, Melendez-Diaz said he should be allowed to question the lab analyst about testing methods, how the evidence was preserved and other issues.

Massachusetts courts rejected his arguments.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the high court, said Melendez-Diaz has a constitutional right to confront the lab analyst.

Court says strip search of child illegal

June 25, 2009
By JESSE J. HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer Jesse J. Holland, Associated Press Writer 4 mins ago

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a school’s strip search of an Arizona teenage girl accused of having prescription-strength ibuprofen was illegal.

The court ruled on Thursday that school officials violated the law with their search of Savana Redding, who lives in Safford, in rural eastern Arizona.

Redding, who now attends college, was 13 when officials at Safford Middle School ordered her to remove her clothes and shake out her underwear because they were looking for pills. The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs and the school was acting on a tip from another student.

The high court, however, said the officials cannot be held liable in a lawsuit for the search. The justices also said the lower courts would have to determine whether the school district could be held liable.

A schoolmate had accused Redding, then an eighth-grade student, of giving her pills.

The school’s vice principal, Kerry Wilson, took Redding to his office to search her backpack. When nothing was found, Redding was taken to a nurse’s office where she says she was ordered to take off her shirt and pants. Redding said they then told her to move her bra to the side and to stretch her underwear waistband, exposing her breasts and pelvic area. No pills were found.

A federal magistrate dismissed a suit by Redding and her mother, April. An appeals panel agreed that the search didn’t violate her rights. But last July, a full panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the search was “an invasion of constitutional rights” and that Wilson could be found personally liable.

The case is Safford Unified School District v. April Redding, 08-479.