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N.Y. Using Terrorism Law To Prosecute Street Gang

Critics Say Post-9/11 Legislation Is Being Applied Too Broadly

By Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page A03


The newest face of an alleged terrorist wears a goatee, stands about five feet tall, dresses in baggy clothes and resides in the Bronx. Gang member Edgar Morales, aka "Puebla," has the distinction of becoming one of the first people ever charged under New York's state terrorism laws.

The Bronx district attorney has accused members of the St. James Boys street gang of shootings "committed with the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." The other charges include murder, attempted murder, various weapons charges and assault. But prosecutors have not alleged that the gang is connected to any terrorist network.

Antonia Mendez holds a picture of her daughter Malenny, who was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout. (Photos Rebecca Letz -- Newsday)

"The terror perpetrated by gangs, which all too often occurs on the streets of New York, also fits squarely within the scope of this statute," said District Attorney Robert T. Johnson.

When members were arrested, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said the gang "terrorized" the community surrounding St. James Park, the neighborhood park from which the gang takes its name.

But civil libertarians and some terrorism experts say the case -- now underway in New York State Supreme Court -- is a misuse of state laws and should raise concern about what they consider is an ever-expanding definition of the term "terrorism."

Jameel Jaffer, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that prosecuting the St. James Boys was not what most Americans envisioned when state legislators passed anti-terrorism bills.

"They didn't think of gang members in inner cities, drug crimes, non-security" crimes, Jaffer said. "It's not what people had in mind."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 36 states added terrorism-related laws to their criminal codes, using them to enhance sentences that, in some cases, will now include the death penalty, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most of the new laws focus on heinous crimes such as murder and kidnapping.

"Probably most of the crimes could have been prosecuted before," said Blake Harrison, a lawyer with the legislatures group. "Enacting these laws makes it a little easier to effect the same goal."

But the new laws also provide prosecutors with new opportunities. Once on the books, the laws can be applied to various crimes if prosecutors believe they can make them stick. It has happened before.

Anti-racketeering laws, for example, were created to combat mobsters but are now frequently used in drug and corporate-corruption cases.

"Language is plastic," said Gregory Mark, a former prosecutor who is now a legal historian at Rutgers University. "As new situations arise and the imagination of prosecutors is stimulated, the statutes which were clearly intended for one purpose are expanded."

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