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N.Y. Using Terrorism Law To Prosecute Street Gang

In Virginia, state prosecutors brought terrorism charges against the now-convicted Washington area snipers Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad, in part because investigators could not pinpoint which man pulled the trigger. Virginia's Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of the state's terrorism laws.

The case against the St. James Boys began in 2002 with the shooting of 10-year-old Malenny Mendez. Shortly after midnight, Malenny and family friends left a christening party. A street fight broke out between the St. James Boys and another group of men. Shots rang out; the men ran. Malenny fell to the ground, a bullet lodged in her brain. She died several hours later.

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

At the time, police said the alleged shooter had fled to Mexico. Prosecutors accused Morales of hiding the gun. But he was convicted only of criminal trespass and was sentenced to time served and probation.

Bronx prosecutors have relaunched the murder case as part of a broader 70-count indictment against the gang that was unsealed last May. It named 19 defendants, charging all of them with terrorism for gang-related activity.

Earlier this month, Morales's attorney, Lewis Alperin, argued in a Bronx courtroom that the definition of terrorism was too expansive. "You put the key in the door and you know what happens: Any protester who takes a position [against the government] will be prosecuted under the terrorism law."

The judge is scheduled to listen to further arguments March 9 before deciding whether to permit the terrorism charges in the case.

New York's anti-terrorism law was born as a response to the 2001 attacks and a public clamor for action. Within a week of the attacks, the state legislature and Gov. George E. Pataki (R) approved terrorism legislation that they hailed as the toughest in the country. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) characterized the bill as "overkill," even as he voted for it.

Silver predicted at the time that the law would be a purely symbolic gesture. "Will there be a prosecution under the state terrorist act?" he asked. "I don't think so."

But terrorism expert Jessica Stern said New York and other states adopted terrorism laws that contained vague and open-ended language that allows the term to easily slip from its original meaning.

"Now we are seeing the possibility that it can be used by the government to go after people we wouldn't think of as terrorists," said Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University. "It's so often an epithet for the person we want to incarcerate [or] extradite."

Outside the Bronx courtroom, Morales's parents said prosecutors overreached with the terrorism charges in a desperate attempt to win a conviction in the little girl's shooting.

The couple says that if prosecutors simply brought criminal charges against Edgar they would accept the fate, but the terrorism label horrifies them. They worry about the stigma the family might suffer if Edgar is convicted for terrorism, and the effect on their jobs and future.

"Sometimes I wonder when people see us walking down the street," said Morales's stepfather, Inocencio Hernandez. "Do they say, ' There goes the parents of Edgar' or 'the parents of a terrorist' ?"

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