D.C.’s New Gang Statute On Trial Along with Defendants

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The first defendants to be tried under a new Washington, DC statute aimed at reducing gang-related violence are going before a judge and jury this week.

Prosecutors say that the men on trial, members of the Todd Place crew, followed and shot Gary O. English, 33, who was allegedly associated with a rival organization, the T Street gang. Five men have been charged with first-degree murder in the 2008 slaying, as well as with assault, obstruction of justice and being members of a gang. Additionally, they are each charged with 10 counts of violation of the criminal street gange statute, which was passed in 2007 and which makes it unlawful for the member of a street gang to “knowingly and willfully participate in any felony or violent misdemeanor,” marking the first time defendants will face such charges.

The men who have been charged are Joseph A. Jenkins, 28; James C. Bates, 27; Edward E. Warren, 18; Darnell Anderson, 24; and Obbie English III, 24. These members of the Todd Place crew, said Assistant U.S. Attorney David P. Saybolt during opening statements, acted as a unit when they sold crack cocaine and marijuana, carried weapons, carried out violent acts and lied to police about their activities.

“These men brought war to the neighborhood, a gang war, crew versus crew,” said Saybolt. “The small fish are as guilty as the larger fish. Either all in or all out.”

By making such statements, Saybolt was attempting to head off one of the most common concerns that arises from the statute: its vagueness of definition and the difficulty of proving gang membership. Another concern that worries both defense attorneys and civil liberties activists is the law’s constitutionality, and whether or not it infringes on individuals’ right to assemble.

Prosecutors also allege that the Todd Place gang members who are standing trial went on a rampage after English’s killing, shooting 13 different individuals. The trial, which is being held before Judge Lynn Leibovitz, is expected to be high-profile and highly charged, since it will involve a number of gang members, drug dealers and drug users who must testify. Security has been tightened in the courtroom, with additional federal marshals posted behind the defendants.

If the five men are convicted under the new statute, they could face a maximum of five years in prison, on top of whatever sentence they might face for the murder and other charges. Prosecutors also hope that a conviction would send a message to gang members who are engaging in criminal or violent activity.

 

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