D.C. gang statute faces first test in 2008 shooting case
Friday, September 3, 2010
A new District law aimed at curtailing violent crime among local gangs will be tested in D.C. Superior Court in the coming days, as a jury hears evidence in the 2008 shooting death of a man who prosecutors say was killed in Northeast Washington in retaliation by a rival gang.
Prosecutors say members of the Todd Place crew orchestrated the fatal shooting of Gary O. English, 33. According to prosecutors, after English arrived home from his job as a Comcast technician and parked his car in the 2000 block of Lincoln Road NE, a white, four-door Chevrolet HHR drove up and its two passengers began shooting, striking English in his back and thigh. He was allegedly associated with the T Street gang, the Todd Place crew's rival.
Authorities have charged five men -- Joseph A. Jenkins, 28; James C. Bates, 27; Edward E. Warren, 18; Darnell Anderson, 24; and Obbie English III, 24 -- with first-degree murder in English's killing. The men were also charged with assault and obstruction of justice and with being members of a gang.
Over a period of several days, prosecutors allege, the men were responsible for several shootings, with 13 individuals shot and 90 bullets recovered.
In addition to securing a conviction for those responsible for English's killing, prosecutors say they are also hoping to send a message to the District's neighborhood crews, many of whom deal in drugs, guns and violence -- that prosecutors have a new weapon in their effort to secure longer prison sentences for such individuals.
Four years ago, the D.C. Council gave city prosecutors an additional tool when it passed the criminal street gang statute, which makes it unlawful for individuals who belong to a street gang to "knowingly and willfully participate in any felony or violent misdemeanor" for the benefit of the gang. Those convicted under the statute could be sentenced to a maximum of five years.
In the Todd Place gang case before Judge Lynn Leibovitz this week, in addition to the murder, assault and conspiracy charges that the five defendants faced, prosecutors added an additional 50 counts -- 10 counts each -- for violations of the gang statute.
Security in Leibovitz's courtroom is heightened for the trial. Four federal marshals are posted -- two each -- on both sides of the five defendants, who sit behind their attorneys. It's expected to be a challenging trial, with rival gang members, drug dealers and drug users anticipated to take the witness stand during the next several weeks to testify about the gang, which operates in the eastern portion of North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue, and the neighborhood called Lincoln Road.
The trial is the first to test the District statute. D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who serves as chairman of the council's Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said it is meant to criminalize violent gang activity and recruitment. The statute's goal was also to hold not only an actual perpetrator accountable but also members of the offender's gang who may have helped carry it out or benefited in some way.
"Our goal is to get at these violent gangs. It's a different way of getting at this criminal behavior," Mendelson said.
But Mendelson admits that the biggest challenge for prosecutors is proving who is a gang member, especially at the time of the offense.
That premise is one of the biggest concerns for defense attorneys, who say that the statute verges on being unconstitutional by infringing on individuals' right to assemble.
Laura E. Hankins, special counsel to the director of the District's Public Defender Service, said defining gang membership is critical and complex. "This definitional vagueness is easily subject to misinterpretation and abuse of enforcement," Hankins said. "A statute must be sufficiently specific to provide reasonable notice of what is legal or illegal, and the gang statute fails in this regard."
During his opening statements Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney David P. Saybolt repeatedly stressed to the jury that the defendants were part of a gang and that they acted as a unit when they sold crack cocaine and marijuana, carried weapons, committed violence and tried to intimidate witnesses and lie to police about their activities.
"These men brought war to the neighborhood, a gang war, crew versus crew," Saybolt said. "The small fish are as guilty as the larger fish. Either all in or all out."
The defendants' attorneys are scheduled to make their opening statements Friday.