Preparing for trial: Elusive audio and the Latin Kings

As the government prepares to make its case against the North Carolina Latin Kings in federal court in Winston-Salem next week, the defendants are seeking to suppress evidence about an alleged order in December by organization leader Jorge Cornell to kill three members who had rebelled against his rule and transport machetes from Raleigh to Greensboro for that purpose.

Michael Patrick, Cornell’s lawyer, said in a motion filed on Oct. 3 that the information about an alleged threat to kill a fellow Latin King member surfaced in a search warrant affidavit by someone identified as FBI Special Agent Rentz, who wrote, “This information was corroborated through a confidential source and audio recordings made by the source, which captured the relevant conversation.”

Patrick said he has reviewed 2,400 pages of transcripts of government recordings and hundreds of audio recordings, and found no references to the alleged threat from mid-December through mid-January. Last month, Patrick requested the audio recordings from the government, but none have been furnished.

US Attorney Ripley Rand responded on Monday that the recording has, in fact, been turned over to the defense, but that “the recording was not located in the normal transcripts because a portion of it was in Spanish and it was translated by others, not the contractor hired by the government to transcribe most of the source recordings.” (Related: Controversy over government evidence has previously surfaced and might crop up during the trial.)

Lewis Pitts, a lawyer who attended a court hearing today as part of a community support effort, said the government seemed to acknowledge that they don’t have a recording that backs up the claim. Patrick could not be reached on Tuesday evening for comment on who the defense might call as witnesses and who is on the government’s list.

“I just felt that was the most significant thing that happened today: something as critical and prejudicial that you say you’ve got a taped conversation of Jorge ordering people to kill three former Latin Kings, and then it turns out you don’t,” Pitts said. “That’s indicative of how this is a trumped-up indictment intended and designed to retaliate for and chill the exercise of First Amendment rights to organize and protest economic and racial justice.

“And that organizing and protesting is exactly what a school board member is willing to testify to, a council member is willing to testify to, various pastors are willing to testify to, and a former mayor is willing to testify to,” Pitts said.

Pitts noted that Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes appointed Cornell to serve on a school safety committee. Greensboro City Councilman Jim Kee assisted the accused gang leader with plans to establish a temporary staffing agency. Pitts said supporters are hoping the defendants’ lawyers will call prominent community leaders as witnesses.

Pitts also said the government gave the defense lawyers a list of 137 potential witnesses.

The US Attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Pitts assertion that the apparent lack of audio evidence to substantiate the Cornell’s alleged kill order indicates the criminal racketeering charges are trumped up.

“We really hope that the defense theory is centered around the truthful counter-narrative of the government’s retaliation for good work even though it involved organizing and protesting and the credible people who can substantiate the good work,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s imperative that those facts be available to the jury to provide a context for them to determine the truth about the matter.”

In a trial brief filed last month, the government pledges to prove that the Cornell and the other North Carolina Latin Kings are members of a national criminal organization and they had no legitimate or legal purpose other than to commit crimes. The brief says that by virtue of indicting the defendants on racketeering charges, the government “assumed the burden of showing that the defendants did not just commit crimes, but that they participated in something larger than any single crime or any single defendant.”

The government gave notice on Monday that it plans to call several expert witnesses, including Guilford County Sheriff’s Deputy John Lowes, FBI Task Force Officer David Milani, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent Ernie Driver, Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Stephen Razik and retired Greensboro Fire Department inspector Tony Wesley Davenport.

The document said Lowes will testify to the nature of the Latin Kings, the group’s activities in and around Greensboro, its purported “violent nature,” crimes committed by members, the meaning of phrases and jargon used in interpersonal communication, and the significance of identifiers such as colors, signs, tattoos and monikers. Opinion testimony offered by Lowes will be based on field observation, direct communication with gang members, street “intelligence” and the review of documents.

The government said Milani, an intelligence analyst with the National Counterterrorism Center and New York Police Department veteran, will testify that the Latin Kings of North Carolina are modeled after counterpart groups in New York and Chicago based on “the use of ‘manifestos’; symbols such as the lion, five-pointed and three-pointed crown, beaded necklaces of yellow, black and red beads, which are prominent in the organization’s dogma; referring to women members as ‘queens’; using hand signals to communicate their own language, including rank, name, orders; membership practices; a code of silence; and the use of tattoos, such as the crown to indicate membership.”

The government said Driver will testify that firearms and ammunition at issue in the case have been transported in interstate commerce. Razik, they said, “will testify regarding the process of making cocaine, where cocaine is made, and the importation of cocaine into the United States,” although the government gave no indication of how these phenomena are relevant to the case. Davenport is expected to testify that an unknown accelerant was used to start a fire that burned down a house on Kirkman Street.

Pitts said the government is expected to have about 250 potential jurors fill out questionnaires on Oct. 15, and jury selection will begin on Oct. 17. Opening arguments are expected on Oct. 22.

Pitts said obtaining a fair jury will be critical to the outcome of the case.

“A major reason to be concerned about fairness is the number of times that articles have appeared in new media about the Latin Kings mentioning an arrest but failing to note all the charges that were dismissed,” he said. “A mere recitation of the allegations in the indictment is enough to make one frightened and, in fact, biased.”


Eric Ginsburg said...

Curious that the tapes are allegedly in Spanish when Cornell doesn't speak Spanish at all...

Jordan Green said...

I almost mentioned in this story that Jorge has told me that he doesn't speak Spanish. In the spirit of being open to all plausible realities, I refrained from interjecting that — who knows, maybe it's a ruse that Jorge doesn't speak Spanish, and that actually he only uses it for coded conversations when discussing sensitive topics among members. To be honest, I strongly doubt that, but let's see what the federal government comes up with.