Day 18: Government and defense make final arguments in Latin Kings trial

Twelve members of a federal jury in the racketeering trial of five North Carolina Latin Kings and an associate must now decide: Were the defendants part of a criminal racketeering enterprise or did some of them merely play some role in a series of disconnected criminal acts?

That distinction could determine whether five of the defendants spend the next 20 years in prison, and whether Jorge Cornell, the statewide leader, receives a life sentence.

Cornell was smiling on Friday morning as about 20 supporters filled seats on the right side of the gallery. He joked with his court-appointed lawyer, Michael Patrick, and with his two biological brothers, Russell Kilfoil and Randolph Kilfoil, who are also defendants. Gesturing towards a marshal seated in the second row, he mouthed to a female supporter: “I got new security.”

Samuel Velasquez, Irvin Vasquez and Ernesto Wilson, along with the Kilfoil brothers are among the five defendants who face up to 20 years in prison.

US District Court Judge James A. Beaty instructed members of the jury that the government carries a “strict and heavy burden” to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants are guilty of racketeering. Jurors will undoubtedly refer back repeatedly to the judge's written instructions, which took Beaty more than an hour to read.

The complex law underlying the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, as explained by the judge, requires the government to establish that the North Carolina Latin Kings enterprise existed from 2005 to 2011, that it was engaged in acts that affected interstate commerce, that the defendants were employed by or associated with the enterprise and that they knowingly or willfully became members of a racketeering conspiracy in which it was understood that they or some member would commit two acts of racketeering.

Racketeering acts, Beaty explained, include conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder, narcotics trafficking, extortion, robbery, fraud and other crimes under North Carolina state law. The government must prove that the enterprise existed for the common purpose of preserving and protecting the power, territory, operations and prestige of the Latin Kings through the use of intimidation and other nefarious means; promoting and enhancing the Latin Kings and the activities of its members and associates; keeping victims, members and associates in fear of the Latin Kings through intimidation and other means; preserving and protecting the organization and its leaders by keeping members and associates from cooperating with law enforcement through intimidation and other means; and providing support to gang members who are charged with or jailed for gang-related activities.

Beaty said that to find the defendants guilty the jury must determine that the enterprise “continued in substantially the same form” from 2005 to 2011, but that it was not necessary that each defendant be involved throughout that period.

If the jury unanimously finds Cornell guilty of racketeering, they must further consider whether he is guilty of two additional counts, both related to a shooting at Maplewood Apartments in April 2008 in which a construction worker named Rogelio Lopez was shot with birdshot by Marcelo Ysrael Perez. The first count involves aiding and abetting assault with a dangerous weapon for the purpose of maintaining and increasing position in the Latin Kings, while the second involves knowingly carrying and using a shotgun during a violent crime in aid of racketeering. Conviction of those additional counts could result in a life sentence for Cornell.

Beaty cautioned the jurors that for them to find Cornell guilty, they must find that Cornell was a “willful participant and not just a knowing spectator.”

The government’s evidence of Cornell’s role in the shootings primarily depends of the testimony of Perez, one of six defendants that has struck a deal and agreed to cooperate with the government. The government also presented testimony from former members Anthony Vasquez, Sylvia Lugo and Jose Argomaniz about the incident that has been challenged by defense lawyers because of contradictions and what appear to be convenient lapses of memory.

Beaty told the jurors that the testimony of witnesses who have been promised they will not be prosecuted or received assistance from the government must be examined with greater caution because those witnesses have a greater motivation to make dishonest or false statements than witnesses who have no personal stake in the outcome of the case.

“Barnes & Noble is a legal structure,” prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon told the jury as she made her closing argument in placid and tones. “They have a structure in which they hold meetings at the store level, at the regional level and the national level to determine how they’re going to conduct their business. The Latin Kings, as it relates to what they were doing in North Carolina, was an illegal structure.”

Much of Lee-Dixon’s testimony centered on what the government contends is evidence of that structure: gold and black clothing, hats, beads and jewelry worn by members; the “amor de rey” salute; hand signs; weekly meetings, rosters and dues; pictures of members posing together on Facebook.

“Everyone who sits at this table has a king name except for Mr. Wilson,” Lee-Dixon said.

“Latin Kings must remain loyal,” the prosecutor continued. “You don’t cooperate with police. You answer to superiors or you suffer the consequences.”

Prosecutors wheeled out a cart with a cardboard box full of black and gold T-shirts, and unfurled them to underscore the theme of gang colors. She displayed firearms that she characterized as “weapons that were not for casual use by someone who might be a hunter.”

“After Cornell was shot, there was a desperate attempt to get weapons,” the prosecutor said. “They wanted weapons. They wanted weapons and they wanted them right away. They wanted them for retaliation.”

Lee-Dixon told jurors that Cornell benefited from robberies committed by other members, and directly tied him to other alleged crimes.

“At Cinnamon Ridge, Jorge Cornell took the firearm and fired at the rival gang member,” she said.

“At Cornerstone Insurance, Mr. Cornell’s ex-wife worked there,” Lee-Dixon continued. “Luis Rosa testified that Mr. Cornell told them about the store and told them where the money would be.”

She urged the jurors to look for a connection among the string of crimes.

“It’s an inference you can make that a Latin King would keep abreast of what’s going on, including criminal activities from place to place,” she said. “One thing you can rely on is that when something happens, Jorge Cornell calls in his reinforcements. With the Maplewood incident, he’s calling in people from Durham. When [girlfriend] Michelle’s car was shot, he wants people to bring weapons. It was an illegal structure with a common purpose of retaliating against rivals and maintaining internal discipline. This is an enterprise that was taking advantage of innocent civilians for their own benefit."

The six defendants range from Cornell, the avowed and undisputed leader and a prominent Greensboro community figure, to Wilson, whose alleged involvement in the enterprise amounted to a robbery spree covering a month-long period in 2007. In keeping with their task of dismantling the government’s criminal enterprise theory and their clients’ varied roles, the defense lawyers presented different arguments.

Patrick opened his argument by attempting to sew doubt in the minds of the jurors about Cornell’s role in the Maplewood Apartments shooting by highlighting inconsistencies and contradictions in Perez’s testimony. Throughout his hour-long argument, he spoke slowly, avoided rhetorical flourishes and took a laidback approach that may have come across as plainspoken honesty but also probably failed to dazzle any of the jurors with overwhelming persuasion.

“He’s a smart witness,” Patrick said, trying to sew doubts about Perez’s credibility. “He has an answer for everything. He knows what he has to do to earn a cut in his time.”

Characterizing the extensive catalogue of crimes laid at the feet of the North Carolina Latin Kings, Patrick took a conservative approach of continually trying to introduce doubt about the government’s case rather than suggesting the defendants were wholly innocent.

“You may have determined that a number of defendants committed a variety of crimes,” Patrick said. “But that’s not what you’re being asked to decided…. Just because Latin Kings committed crimes does not mean that the Latin Kings were a criminal enterprise. They have to connect the crimes to the enterprise. A lot of it might have been freelance work – people who were Latin Kings at one time who decided to commit a crime for personal purposes.”

Patrick acknowledged Cornell’s use of an electronic benefits transfer card at a grocery store and that an assault outside of courthouse occured, but argued that neither rises to the level of racketeering crimes.

“They’re asking you to find my client guilty of narcotics trafficking,” Patrick said. “Who do you believe about that? You’ve got Anthony and Robert Vasquez saying they sold grams of cocaine for $20. The government called their own DEA expert, and he told you that what they said didn’t make sense, that people sold cocaine on the street in Greensboro at that time for $70 a gram. He told you people don’t sell drugs to try to lose money.”

Patrick and other members of the defense team might have missed an opportunity in neglecting to mention that Guilford County Sheriff’s Office Detective John Lowes, the co-case manager of the racketeering investigation, had testified that the North Carolina Latin Kings had a rule against dealing drugs.

The defense lawyer assailed the government’s allegation that Cornell attempted to extort money by demanding a cut of the insurance proceeds from the burning of Helen Carlene Buscemi’s house.

“Mr. Moore claimed that Mr. Cornell met Carlene Buscemi and asked her for some of the money,” Patrick said. “I think you can judge her credibility. She flat out said she was never threatened by Jorge Cornell. I think she was pretty emphatic that she wouldn’t have given Jorge the money.”

The defense lawyer assailed the credibility of Jose Lugo, the government’s paid informant also known as King Hova who was wearing a wire during his time with the Latin Kings. Patrick quoted Lugo as saying to the mother of his child: “I have power over the police. I can sell all the kilos of cocaine I want.” Patrick asked, “Why is he saying that to his baby’s mother if he is not a drug dealer? I think that shows the true testimony of Hova.”

Patrick outlined a number of commendable activities by Cornell that had been described by community leaders in testimony for the defense, including working with a school safety committee to steer students away from the Latin Kings, a gang peace summit and attempting to set up a non-profit staffing agency.

“The government contends all of this was a smokescreen,” Patrick said. “Frankly, doesn’t it make more sense if you’re trying to conduct a criminal enterprise to fly under the radar?”

But Patrick’s closing remarks focused on encouraging doubt about whether the government had met its burden than rather than dramatically countering the government's characterization of Cornell and his organization.

“I’m not here to argue to you that my client’s an angel,” Patrick said. “He might not be someone who you would like to invite to dinner. That’s not what you’re here to decide. You’re a bulwark between the citizens and the government of the United States. Your job is to decide whether the government has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Brian Aus, Russell Kilfoil’s court-appointed lawyer, reminded jurors that they must treat each defendant separately when determining guilt or innocence.

Aus argued that it his client played a restraining role in an episode in which Latin Kings made firebombs in preparation for an attack on ex-members’ homes – what the government characterizes as the “thwarted arson.”

“It was Hova, not Russell Kilfoil, who showed them how to make a better firebomb,” Aus said. “Why did he do it? Trying to sell audio to the government. Those bottles never got into the car because Russell Kilfoil told him it wasn’t a good idea.”

As to a statement made by former Latin King Robert Vasquez that he was 90-percent certain that Kilfoil was the person who stood outside a vehicle at shot into his house, Aus noted that Hova’s wire captured a conversation about enmities towards the Vasquezes a couple weeks later. If Kilfoil had been the shooter, Aus argued, “he would have bragged about it.”

Christopher Shella, the court-appointed lawyer for Randolph Kilfoil, sought to distance his client from the other members of the Latin Kings, including his two biological brothers.

“You can pick your friends,” Shella said. “But you can’t pick your family.”

He told the jurors that that the government had never presented evidence that his client wore black and gold clothing, that he had Latin Kings tattoos or uttered the phrase “amor de rey.”

Shella noted that his client pleaded guilty of robbing cigarettes from an individual outside of a Greensboro Wal-Mart store in 2006.

“The government told you that this case is about preserving the prestige and power of the Latin Kings,” Shella said. “How does robbing someone of cigarettes do that?”

After completing that prison sentence, Randolph Kilfoil was sentenced in 2010 for possession of a firearm by a felon with a projected release date in 2016. Shella reminded the jury of a roster of incarcerated members of the Latin Kings that was seized from among Russell Kilfoil’s possessions in December 2011.

“My client is not there,” Shella said.

Mark Edwards, the court-appointed lawyer for Samuel Velasquez, said there was no question his client was a member of the Latin Kings, but reminded the jurors of the First Amendment freedom of association.

“It doesn’t just protect Democrats and Republicans, Wolfpack and Duke fans, Rotarians and Civitans,” Edwards said. “It also protects groups that are unpopular. It wouldn’t worth much if it didn’t.”

Edwards addressed the government’s allegation that Velasquez was involved in conspiracy to murder and attempted murder as the driver of a car that transported one or more shooters past a Smith Homes apartment last year. Edwards told members of the jury that the testimony of Richard Robinson and Charles Moore, two best friends, conflicted as to how many shooters were in the car and whether Moore was there or not, and that while both said three shots were fired, only one bullet was recovered.

He also showed the jury a police forensics photograph that showed the angle of the bullet that pierced the doorway of the Smith Homes apartment, arguing that it could not have come from a passing car.

“If you extend this out logically, the person shot from the deck,” Edwards said. “Bullets do not change course. This is not a magic bullet.”

The lawyer acknowledged that Greensboro police seized machetes from his client. He disputed the government’s contention that the purpose of Velasquez bringing the machetes to Greensboro was so that Latin Kings could “chop people up.” Rather, Edwards said, the machetes would have been used by members assigned to security posts on the front porch of the Latin Kings residence in Greensboro.

Edwards closed by ridiculing the Latin Kings to build a defense for individual members against the charge of criminal racketeering.

“Apparently, all you had to do to be a Latin King was have a pulse and wear black and gold T-shirts,” he said. “If you stick around a couple months, you can have a crown position. If you come with a ‘terminate on sight,’ no problem. It’s kind of like 6-year-old tee-ball: Everybody gets an award at the end of the season.”

He also noted that Lee-Dixon misspoke when she identified Velasquez as the Latin Kings member who admonished Russell Kilfoil to not discuss Latin Kings business on Facebook.

“If you look at Mr. Velasquez’s Facebook page, you’ll find that he needs a new pickup line because ‘Hello, gorgeous’ is not working for him,” Edwards said, “and that he wants information about the Dream Team.”

The argument of Helen Parsonage, court-appointed lawyer for Irvin Vasquez, focused on the fact that by all accounts her client was not involved with Jorge Cornell’s Latin Kings after October 2008. Likewise, she said, witnesses testified that Vasquez was presented for the robberies of the $2.50 Cleaners, Express Laundry, El Tarahumara grocery or Musica Latina – a string of crimes that took place in a month-long period in 2007.

She said none of the witnesses said Vasquez was present when Latin Kings allegedly stole merchandise off a Rose’s store trailer, adding that there was no evidence other than the cooperators’ testimony that a crime actually took place because the store never filed a police report.

The government presented no evidence to support an allegation in its indictment that Vasquez, along with Jason Yates, robbed a marijuana dealer in Morrisville in December 2008. By all accounts, Yates fell out with Cornell sometime in late 2008. He is also a defendant in the racketeering indictment, but his case was separated because his court-appointed lawyer had been unprepared to go to trial. Prosecutors would have likely had a difficult time convincing jurors that the alleged crime -- committed following Yates' split with Cornell -- supported a common purpose of a racketeering enterprise with Cornell at its head.

The government contends that Vasquez participated in a racketeering enterprise through his alleged involvement in the planning and execution of the Maplewood Apartments shooting – two separate acts, according to the government. She argued that witnesses who implicated her client in the crime gave conflicting stories to the police and to the jury about their own involvement, and that one was granted immunity by the government around the time his child was born.

“You don’t have two criminal acts, and you don’t have any evidence that my client was anywhere near these crimes,” Parsonage said. “There was no Irvin, and therefore not guilty.”

Curtis Holmes, the court-appointed lawyer for Ernesto Wilson, told jurors that John Choe, Mixay Keophakhoun and other victims of robberies did not identify his client as the culprit. He said the prosecutors would have been expected to ask the victims if they could identify the person who robbed them in the courtroom, but they did not. He said the only believable evidence of his client’s involvement was the testimony of cooperating witnesses who are hoping to get reductions in time or other leniency in exchange for their testimony.

“The grainy video that you saw matches hundreds of thousands of African-American men in the United States,” Holmes said. “That video is not evidence.”

Even if he were involved in the robberies, Holmes argued, all the testimony indicates Wilson came to North Carolina in 2007 to make some money, not to enhance any organization, and that the robberies were not planned.

Holmes concluded, “You have spent the last month or so getting a glimpse of multiple tragedies in the lives of people who were poor. There’s a very real risk that the harm and sadness continue if you allow the government to convict someone of being a Latin King when they’re not. Mr. Wilson’s freedom and liberty is in your hands. This is an important, life-changing decision. Menace, Speechless and Smooth – are these the people on whom you would base an important, life-changing decision? No!”

Lee-Dixon urged jurors to trust their own eyes when it came to identifying Wilson in the store surveillance video of the robberies.

“You have the stills,” she said. “You’ve seen the defendants. You can make that determination.” She also argued that Wilson was “a trusted person who knew Mr. Cornell” and was therefore an associate in fact.

In parts of Lee-Dixon’s argument she attempted to shore up the credibility of the government’s case, arguing that the string of crimes reflected a hierarchical organization in which Cornell called the shots.

“Even with the bank fraud, Mr. Moore and Mr. Robinson, yeah, they put it together, but they said they told Russell Kilfoil, and he wanted a cut from it,” Lee-Dixon said. “And he warned them not to tell Jorge Cornell because he would want some of the money, too.”

She steered jurors past the testimony of Helene Carlene Buscemi.

“You heard about a phone call from Jorge Cornell saying he wanted some of that money or he would call the police,” Lee-Dixon said. “I would submit to you that based on what you heard from the cooperators there was extortion.”

The alleged drug sales by the Vasquez brothers under Cornell’s direction was still plausible despite what jurors heard about the price point in the street sales market in Greensboro circa 2005, Lee-Dixon said.

“Although it is true that you probably wouldn’t sell a gram of cocaine for $20, it would depend on how many times that cocaine was cut,” she said.

As part of her argument that the North Carolina Latin Kings maintained a common purpose, Lee-Dixon took shots at the testimony of Eric Ginsburg, one of Cornell’s city council campaign managers who was later hired as a reporter by YES! Weekly.

“Despite the testimony you heard, the video speaks for itself,” Lee-Dixon said, referencing Cornell’s arrest while campaigning at an outdoor music festival near Natty Greene’s in August 2009. “You heard from Officer [Roman] Watkins that he saw members of the Latin Kings throwing gang signs and that there were Bloods in the confines of that festival. Eric Ginsburg, who said he was intent on hearing everything, said he didn’t hear ‘amor de rey.’

“We ask you to tell Mr. Cornell and the other defendants that their reign is over as Latin Kings in North Carolina,” Lee-Dixon concluded.

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