At 4:51 am, on April 27 in the North Bronx, Paula Clarke and her two daughters were awoken by the sounds of explosions and shuffling feet. “I just thought that [it was] terrorism, nothing else,” she said, thinking back to the night.
Though it may make sense to give prosecutors broad powers in order to bust mafias that corrupt legitimate organizations—like labor unions—the use of those means to nab petty criminals and residents of public housing, where associations and affiliations are easily blurred and mistaken, is quite another story. With residents facing decades behind bars, the application of RICO has families up in arms.
In one example, some of the indicted are being accused of conspiring to murder a 92-year-old woman who was killed by a stray bullet, even though someone in the “gang” already pleaded guilty in state court and is doing time for the murder. Not only are those in the “gang” being held responsible, the murderer is now being retried for the murder under the federal conspiracy charges. The dual sovereignty doctrine holds that double jeopardy isn’t violated because both state and federal governments have the right to prosecute crimes committed in their respective jurisdictions—even if one or the other has already convicted you. In addition, some defendants are being tied to the alleged gang by crimes they have already served time for, according to mothers who have read the sealed discovery materials and spoken with some of the indicted. This, too, is standard practice in RICO indictments, says Howell. Double jeopardy isn’t violated because the charges differ—this time you are being charged with conspiring to commit the crime. And all of your “associates” are also held responsible.
The broadening of RICO to apply to street gangs has drawn scorn, and accusations of severe racial bias. Local and federal authorities are quick to equate crime committed in minority neighborhoods to organized gang activity, while crime in white neighborhoods is addressed individually. One study of publicly available RICO gang indictments shows that 86 percent involve gangs primarily affiliated to blacks, Latinos, or Asians. In contrast, the KKK is not treated like a gang or indicted on federal conspiracy charges.