Day 15: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial

The US government rested its case around noon today in the federal racketeering trial of seven North Carolina Latin Kings in Winston-Salem amidst concerns that defendant Jorge Cornell has been communicating with potential witnesses for the defense.

Prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon said Cornell, the leader of the organization, has had communication with the Rev. Nelson Johnson and Alana Cornell. Johnson is a pastor who has acted as a spiritual counselor and advisor to the Latin Kings leader since 2008. Alana Cornell is the defendant’s ex-wife and the mother of his two daughters.

Lee-Dixon said recordings of phone calls obtained by the government indicate that Cornell has had extensive conversations with the two about different aspects of the trial, including grand jury testimony. She said she believes the conversations violate Judge James A. Beaty’s sequestration order at the beginning of the trial, which prohibits witnesses from being present in court prior to their testimony.

“Our concern is if these witnesses come to the stand, their testimony could be tainted,” the prosecutor said.

Beaty said he will hold a hearing to determine whether sanctions should be applied when court resumes after lunch today at 1:30 p.m.

Lee-Dixon also expressed concern that a person identified only by the initial D has been observing the trial and providing notes to Johnson, and that during a press conference last week Johnson mentioned the name of a potential defense witness who was identified by one of the government’s potential witnesses as someone who had stated that he shot Cornell.

Judge Beaty, who was visibly angry, admonished from the bench that “any witness who speaks to another witness about what is heard in court may be subject to contempt of court.”

UPDATE: Judge Beaty dismissed all charges against defendant Carlos Coleman today. Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice gave testimony about a civil rights complaint filed on behalf of the Latin Kings while the jury was out of the courtroom. The court appointed lawyer for defendant Jorge Cornell began calling witnesses, starting with the Rev. Greg Headen. Full coverage of the day's events later this evening.

UPDATE 2: The hearing on the government's motion for sanctions was not heard this afternoon. Considering that Judge Beaty told members of the jury that they would not be needed until 2 p.m. tomorrow, but that court will resume at 9:30 a.m., it seems likely that the motion will be heard tomorrow morning.

The government notes in its argument that "sequestration of trial witnesses serves the important purpose of preventing the possibility of one witness shaping his testimony to serve a specific purpose based on what other witnesses have provided."

The government's motion alleges that on the first day of the trial, Cornell made phone calls to Johnson and "D," and discussed trial testimony and the judge's sequestration order.

From the motion:

Just as the defendant has a right to a fair trial by jury, the government also holds this right, which will be completely undermined if the defense is allowed to call two witnesses whose testimony has been so tainted and influenced by defendant Cornell and the information he has provided them concerning the specifics of so many of the government's substantive witnesses. To allow these two witnesses to testify in the face of defendant's intentional, repeated violation of this court's sequestration order would be to permit willful, obstructionist conduct to pass without serious consequence. The government therefore respectfully requests that this court prohibit Reverend Johnson and Alana Cornell from testifying and thus preserve the integrity and fundamental fairness of the trial.

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