Santa Ana, California — A federal jury convicted four leading Aryan Brotherhood gang members on Thursday of running a criminal enterprise from behind bars that routinely engaged in murder, narcotics trafficking and conspiracy in an effort to rule the nation’s prisons.
The middle-aged defendants stared stoically at the court clerk as she spent an hour reading and verifying the verdicts, which could lead to a possible death sentence for two defendants and life in prison for the others. All four were convicted of racketeering, conspiracy and murders dating back to 1979.
It was a sweeping victory for the prosecution, which got guilty verdicts on five of the six counts after two weeks of jury deliberations. Jurors acquitted two defendants on a single murder charge, but convicted them on racketeering and conspiracy charges that allege a host of murders were committed to benefit the gang. Jurors also convicted them on three other murder counts.
They were indicted in 2002 along with 36 other gang members and associates under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was originally created to prosecute Mafia families. The group was accused of committing 32 murders and attempted murders.
“If we get a conviction on anything, the government thinks it’s a big win,” Terri Flynn, an assistant United States attorney, said before the verdicts were read. “Even a conviction on conspiracy keeps them in prison and may allow more stringent housing.”
The trial of the admitted leaders, Barry B. Mills, 57, and Tyler D. Bingham, 58, will go to a penalty phase on Aug. 15 that could result in a verdict of death. The two other defendants, Christopher O. Gibson, 46, and Edgar W. Hevle, 54, will be sentenced on Oct. 23 and face at least 20 additional years in prison. Until this trial started, all except for Mr. Mills were eligible for parole within the next 13 years.
“If my client is convicted of even one count, it’s essentially a life sentence because he’ll never live to get out of prison,” a lawyer for Mr. Hevle, Donald Calabria, said during the trial, which began March 14.
The Aryan Brotherhood began in San Quentin prison in California in the 1960’s as a way for white inmates to protect themselves during a racially charged era. Trial testimony painted a picture of a ruthless cadre of villains who routinely ordered assassinations of rivals and their own members for such perceived ills as disrespect, homosexuality or failing to follow orders.
The highly organized group had a political structure with Mr. Mills and Mr. Bingham at the top, privy to meting out life or death punishments at whim. A parade of former Aryan Brotherhood members testified about life in the gang and how they used methods like lip reading, invisible ink or lawyer mail privileges to pass messages that ordered killings.
One such incident started a race war in a Pennsylvania prison that left two black inmates dead. Mr. Mills and Mr. Bingham were convicted of these murders, which were the death penalty counts.
Lawyers have disputed the government’s claims, insisting that members did not murder within a vast conspiracy but rather to survive in the hellish prison system. The group is more of a social club than anything and enjoys playing cards, reading and crocheting, said Mark Fleming, a lawyer for Mr. Mills.
Mr. Fleming and other lawyers vigorously objected to prosecutors’ rewarding the informants with a new life in the witness protection program and paying them thousands of dollars to testify before the grand jury and ultimately this trial. To date, one witness has been paid $153,000 for living expenses, a car allowance and education, Mr. Fleming said.
Before winning release, the informants were housed in a special cellblock at a federal “supermaximum” prison in Colorado, where they were fed information by the government to help prepare the case, defense lawyers claimed.
This is the first group of defendants to face trial. Nineteen other defendants have pleaded guilty, one died in custody and the rest are awaiting trial.