Saturday, May 15, 2004

U.S. Citizens Indicted on Terror Charges 

Warrants have been issued for the arrest of 19 members of a New York City street gang called the St. James Gang. These gang members are accused of murder, conspiracy, and gang assault. Because they acted with "the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population", Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson is arguing that these crimes are acts of terrorism. Article 490, a New York state statute passed six days after 9-11, makes it possible for two otherwise identical crimes to carry different sentences if one can be shown to be an act of terrorism. For example, murderers in New York state face a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole, while murder shown to be an act of terrorism carries a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole. The details of the case against the St. James gangsters can be found here.

In the course of trying to kill a rival gang member a St. James gangster named Edgar Morales inadvertently shot a 10-year-old girl. The other gang members who have been charged were present at the scene. Killing children is despicable, and Morales deserves to go to prison for at least 25 years and perhaps for his entire life. However, it is important to remember that despite being killers and criminals these men are also American citizens, and are legally entitled to the same rights and protections as other Americans.

This case is troubling. The Bronx DA is arguing that these men should be held to a different standard of justice because of their subjective intentions or states of mind. The proposition "A bullet fired from a gun held by Edgar Morales struck and killed a ten year old girl" seeks to establish an objective fact that can be proved or disproved by evidence and testimony. On the other hand, the proposition "Edgar Morales intended to intimidate a civilian population" can be neither proved nor disproved. Evidence and testimony do not bear on this proposition, because it is impossible to testify as to what is going on in someone else's mind.

Our justice system will be starting down a slippery slope if these men are found guilty of acts of terrorism. A guilty verdict will establish the precedent that the state can identify American citizens as terrorists, and hand out harsher sentences, if prosecuting attorneys can convince juries that the citizens were thinking the wrong thing when they committed their crimes. Because a person's thoughts are unknowable, sentences will be determined not by the facts of the case, but by conjecture and rhetoric. Courts must make their decisions based on facts, rather than unprovable assertions.

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