Day 17: North Carolina Latin Kings on trial

The defense rested its case on Thursday in the federal racketeering trial against six North Carolina Latin Kings in federal court in Winston-Salem, putting only nine witnesses on the stand in as many hours compared to a monumental effort by the government that included more than 100 witnesses, including law enforcement officers, former gang members, expert witnesses and crime victims.

US District Court Judge James A. Beaty ironed out jury instructions with prosecutors and lawyers for the six defendants this afternoon, and told them to be ready for closing arguments at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning. The government will have an hour to make its opening and closing arguments, while the defense attorneys will have two and a half hours for their arguments, which they may share however they like. The total time amounts to 20 minutes per defendant.

The first two witnesses called by Jorge Cornell, Katie Yow and the Rev. Randall Keeney, generally built on testimony from the previous day by detailing activities of the defendant from 2008 through late 2011 that presented a counter-narrative of a young leader deeply engaged in community activism, in contrast to the portrait drawn by the government of a ruthless and conniving chief of a criminal enterprise.

But it was testimony from the last witness, Helen Buscemi – the 72-year-old grandmother of Latin King Wesley Williams – that might have helped the most, by striking at the credibility of the government’s allegation that Cornell arranged to have her house burned down and used intimidation in an attempt to collect part of the insurance proceeds.

Richard Robinson and Charles Moore, two Latin Kings who have struck plea deals, testified for the government that Williams told them he planned to burn down the house owned by Buscemi at 1309 Kirkman Street in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Greensboro. Moore testified that Cornell’s reaction had been, “Whatever.”

They testified that Williams filled bottles with kerosene and that they heard a report about a house on fire at the address on Robinson’s police scanner. Robinson said Williams returned smelling like kerosene and that he told his friend he should have burned his clothes. Moore recalls that he told Williams he was stupid.

Both testified that Cornell called Williams’ mother, Cara Williams – who was living with her mother, Helen Buscemi, in New Jersey at the time – and said he wanted a $10,000 cut from a $96,466 check for insurance proceeds. Robinson testified, “Cornell said he wanted $10,000 of it or he was going to send some kings up to her house in New Jersey.”

Moore’s testimony was somewhat different: He said Cornell said in a phone message to Cara Williams: “I know your son burned that house down. I want some of that money. If not, I will call the police and tell them."

Buscemi contradicted them both.

Patrick asked her if Jorge Cornell ever called her on the phone and said he wanted some money.

No, Buscemi responded.

Did he ever leave a message saying he wanted the money?

Again, no.

“Did he ever threaten to call the police if you didn’t give him the money?” Patrick asked.

“No,” Buscemi said.

Buscemi also said Cornell was “not one of my favorite people.” She testified that she met him on one occasion at the Rev. Nelson Johnson’s church, and that the only time she and Cornell talked was when the church was interested in buying the Kirkman Street house.

Buscemi testified that she spent the money from the insurance proceeds on a new car, iPads and clothes for herself and her daughter, and an emergency cash reserve. She said she also used some of it to purchase train tickets for her grandson and to give him spending money when he traveled to Las Vegas to be with his girlfriend. She also paid a contractor in Greensboro named Bobby Sprinkle to bulldoze the house, and testified under cross examination that her grandson lived with Sprinkle and did some work for him, so he likely received some of the money as payment.

Buscemi moved slowly after she was excused, and Patrick assisted her as she stepped down from the stand. Following testimony that was often frank about her family’s difficulties, Buscemi told a federal marshal before exiting the courtroom: “Don’t get old; it’s not worth it.”

On the stand, she described how her daughter had lived in the Kirkman Street house for a period, how her grandson stayed behind after her daughter rejoined her in New Jersey despite the family’s objections. She testified that her daughter informed her that Williams, also known as Bam, was a Latin King and that some of his friends had moved in the Kirkman Street house with him.

“The inside was destroyed when they left the house,” Buscemi testified. “They were young boys. They didn’t know any better, I guess.”

Williams was not called by either the government or the defense to give testimony, in contrast to three other defendants who have also struck plea deals.

Testimony by Katie Yow, a high school library assistant, at the beginning of day augmented complemented testimony the previous day by Eric Ginsburg. The two worked together on Cornell’s 2009 Greensboro City Council campaign.

“The first time I met Jorge is when he came to visit his daughter’s school where I was student teaching at the time,” Yow testified. “He came to Guilford Elementary to have lunch with his daughter.”

By that time, Yow said she was aware through news accounts of Cornell’s efforts to bring about a gang truce.

Yow’s testimony dovetailed with Ginsburg’s in describing Cornell’s political campaign and a trip to Detroit in June 2010 for the US Social Forum. She talked about a march at the opening of the conference, how Cornell had suffered from a heart attack and spent most of the conference in the hospital.

“We’ve continued to run in the same social justice circles,” Yow said, characterizing her relationship with Cornell since the 2009 city council campaign.

The defense also called the Rev. Randall Keeney, vicar at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro. Keeney gave testimony about meeting Cornell through meetings at the Beloved Community Center, learning that Cornell had been shot, and serving as an advisor for a staffing agency Cornell had been working to set up. On those topics, Keeney’s testimony dovetailed variously with that of previous witnesses Rev. Greg Headen, Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes and NC A&T University professor Brian Sims.

Patrick asked Keeney if he was aware of any other social justice activities in which Latin Kings were involved.

“They were active in support of residents of Hairston Homes, who found themselves facing eviction,” Keeney testified.

Judge Beaty turned down motions for acquittal – allowable in cases where the court finds that evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction – for all six defendants. The afternoon session was consumed by discussions about jury instructions.

Helen Parsonage, the court-appointed lawyer for Irvin Vasquez, argued that case law requires a defendant to have participated in at least two predicate acts to meet the threshold of racketeering. She said the two predicate acts the government has accused her client of pertain to the same incident. She said the government has presented evidence that Vasquez was present for the planning of the Maplewood Apartments shooting and that he was present at the shooting itself.

"This was an incident that occured continuously for a very short time," Parsonage argued.

Assistant US Attorney Robert AJ Lang argued in response that the planning and execution of the crime were separate incidents because the group had been motivated by a desire to retaliate against a rival MS-13 member named Guero, but that the shooter mistakenly shot Rogelio Lopez, who was not a gang member, instead.

"The Maplewood incident was the conspiracy to murder Guero," Lang said. "The second part of it was the aiding and abetting of assault on Rogelio Lopez."

Beaty turned down a request by the defense to define the racketeering enterprise as the “Greensboro Latin Kings” as opposed to the statewide organization about which the government has presented evidence.

The judge agreed to omit any reference in the jury instructions to defendant Ernesto Wilson as “King Yayo.” Testimony by government witnesses has consistently established that Wilson was not a member of the Latin Kings, and did not wear the organization’s traditional colors or participate in its rituals and meetings. The government contends he is an "associate in fact" because of his alleged participation in a monthlong robbery spree with members of the Latin Kings in 2007.

The discussions also covered the types of violations of state law that would be listed as racketeering acts in the jury instructions. They include, murder, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, arson, narcotics trafficking, interference with commerce by threats or violence, bank fraud and theft from interstate shipment.

The defense has kept the jury from hearing evidence the government had planned to introduce concerning an alleged boast made by Cornell that he had killed a member of the rival MS-13 gang. Patrick successfully argued that the material should be excluded because its evidentiary value was outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Even so, Judge Beaty ruled on Thursday that the crime would remain in the jury instructions.

“Murder will be included so far as it includes conspiracy and attempt,” he said.

The judge also discussed the crime of extortion with counsel.

“I don’t believe we presented any evidence as it relates to extortion,” prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon said.

Beaty asked her about the alleged arson of the 1309 Kirkman Street house.

“It could have been,” Lee-Dixon said, reconsidering.

Beaty noted that the government presented no evidence on an allegation that Jorge Cornell and another defendant, Russell Kilfoil, committed extortion against a cell phone store employee at Four Seasons Town Centre in early 2008. State charges against the two were dropped because of insufficient evidence, and the state obtained a conviction against store Alma Esparza based on surveillance video showing her purchasing jewelry, along with receipts to show how she spent the stolen money.

Lee-Dixon ultimately asked that the extortion reference remain in the jury instructions based on evidence presented about the Kirkman Street house fire.

The day began with testimony out of the presence of the jury by AJ Blake, a former Greensboro police officer who had been assigned to the gang enforcement unit at the time Cornell was shot. Known as a proffer, the procedure enables counsel to enter information into the record that the judge does not allow the jury to know about. Proffer is often used for the purposes of laying the groundwork for an appeal, suggesting the defense is hedging its bets on the verdict of the trial.

Patrick asked Blake if he had had an opportunity to form an opinion as to the honesty and character of Greensboro police Officer Roman Watkins, who testified for the government about an incident in which Cornell was arrested at an outdoor music festival while campaigning for city council.

“I believe he is a dishonest individual who is willing to lie under oath to get a desired result,” Blake testified.

Under Lang's cross-examination, Blake testified that he had been fired from the police department.

“Yes, sir,” Blake testified. “I was fired in retaliation for being a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit.”

The witness added that Watkins lied in relation to the lawsuit.

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