A federal magistrate yesterday denied Alex Sanchez bail in his gang conspiracy trial as expected, but the prosecution entered a surprisingly “weak” case, according to defense counsel.
If the bail denial is endorsed by federal judge Manuel Real, an appeal to the US Ninth Circuit Court could take months, keeping Sanchez in federal isolation. Sanchez’s defenders argue that bail denial is a violation of his equal opportunity to participate in his own defense, tipping the scales of justice against the indigent defendant, former gang member and decade-long leader of Homies Unidos, a gang-prevention organization highly regarded in juvenile justice circles.
Sanchez appeared in court yesterday chained and shackled, dressed in a white prison uniform. He made brief eye contact with his family and supporters, tapping his heart in a gesture of love and strength. He remained quiet through the proceedings.
In arguing that Sanchez was a danger to the community and a flight risk, the prosecution revealed the core of its conspiracy case for the first time since Sanchez was arrested at home at 6 am last Wednesday.
In the eyes of this observer, who has personally experienced and covered many past conspiracy cases, the prosecution’s narrative seemed weaker than others brought during the police’s and FBI’s long wars against crime, the left, revolutionaries, antiwar activists and, more recently, narco-terrorists and violent gangs. As Father Gregory Boyle argues, the problem is not so much a police conspiracy as a deep ignorance and cultural bias in the ranks of prosecutors and law enforcement. Both a conspiratorial mindset and ignorance seemed on display today, leading Sanchez’s attorney Kerry Bensinger to call the government’s case “weak” and “laughable.” A notably professional attorney who refuses to argue the case in the media, Bensinger reddened and shook his head at several points during the proceeding.
As evidence that Sanchez leads a “double life” as community healer by day and secret member of a hierarchical racketeering organization (the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS) by night, the prosecutors offered the following evidence:
•that Sanchez claims to support gang tattoo removal as a path out of the gang life but has a gang tattoo across his chest. In fact, laser tattoo removal programs, which are painful, lengthy and expensive, are offered only for the hands, wrists, neck or other areas that are barriers to training and employment programs. Father Boyle credits Sanchez with helping 250 young people undergo tattoo removal. Sanchez openly admits he was a tattooed member of MS in the 1980s and early 1990s. (As a state senator, I authorized $2 million for tattoo-removal programs.)
•that Sanchez has a long criminal record. But defense counsel noted that several of Sanchez’s previous convictions have been struck down, and that those which remain are two offenses from 1991. Subsequently, Sanchez has been not only exonerated of past offenses in LA Superior Court but granted political asylum by an immigration judge during the Rampart police scandal in 2002.
•that a poem by Sanchez was found in papers taken by police during a house raid several years ago.
•that Sanchez appeared in a 2000 photo taken at a gang peace conference in San Francisco, smiling with an associate and posing with gang signs. Attorney Bensinger noted that millions of young people, including his own kids, sometimes throw gang signs without such behavior being criminal.
•that several weeks ago Sanchez and several young men were talking and drinking after a sporting event when police rolled up and took notes on field identification cards. There were no charges made.
On the most sensational charge of conspiracy to murder, the prosecution introduced an LAPD officer who had wiretapped Sanchez, among others, without the required turning over of transcripts of the actual wiretaps to the defense. Sanchez’s attorney objected to his inability to cross-examine or obtain evidence through discovery. But the officer, Frank Flores, was allowed to take the stand anyway, in support of charges which have yet to be examined. The prosecution argued that the tapes of multiple phone calls around May 5-6, 2006, will reveal arguments, tensions and threats among several gang members, including Sanchez and Walter Lacinos, a k a “Cameron.” Sanchez, according to the still-unreleased tape, is quoted as saying “we go to war,” without any further context or quotation. Lacinos was killed the following week in El Salvador by an unnamed MS member, according to the prosecution account.
A sentence such as “we go to war,” without context, could be prophecy, prediction or warning, but it is hardly substantive evidence of ordering a gang killing. The case itself may open up the shadowy world of LAPD collusion with Salvadoran police and the unsolved murders of numerous Homies Unidos members deported back to El Salvador in the past decade.
Many might ask why Sanchez isn’t simply tried for accessory to murder in the proper state or local court. The plain reason is that the evidence would be insufficient. Enter the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act conspiracy laws (thought to have been named after a gangster in a Edward G. Robinson film), which make guilt by association the basis of responsibility for concrete “overt” acts. (For example, during the 1969 Chicago Democratic National Convention conspiracy trial, eight defendants were accused of conspiring to cross state lines and carrying out “overt acts” in furtherance of said conspiracy. It was not necessary that the eight knew one another. I was charged with the overt act of letting air out of a police car’s tires. Bobby Seale’s overt act was giving a speech in broad daylight. Jerry Rubin, if I recall, was charged with throwing a sweater at a police officer.)
Alex Sanchez will have to show that he was not an active participant in any crime, that his presence on wiretapped conversations was not evidence of murderous intent and/or that multiple dangers precluded him from just hanging up. It is possible that the tapes themselves will unravel into garbled discussions proving nothing resembling a conspiracy. But the government will refuse to release the tapes for as many months as possible, while Sanchez remains locked away. In the end, the real conspirators may prove to be the LAPD and FBI elements who continue to blame Sanchez for causing them embarrassment in the Rampart scandal a decade ago, when they tried to imprison and deport him.
A movement to demand bail and a fair trial for Sanchez was announced immediately after the bail denial. Led by Homies Unidos activists, the defense committee released over 100 letters from Salvadoran community leaders, gang-prevention groups from across the country, and an array of clergy, including Father Boyle, Rabbi Allen Freehling, Rabbi Steve Jacobs and Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, who attended the bail proceedings. The website wearealex.com is issuing regular updates on the case.