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New York Gang Member Faces Trial as Terrorist

Reuters | December 29 2004

FLASHBACK: The Patriot Act: Targeting American Citizens

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Every time Lourdes Morales watches the TV news and sees a story on terrorism, she weeps.

Family members have stopped trying to console her, but they, too, cannot understand why Edgar Morales, the family's youngest son, will see the new year arrive in prison where he is waiting to be tried as a terrorist.

"They are comparing my son to (Osama) bin Laden ... and all those people who used bombs and killed thousands of people at random," said Morales.

"They are making him look as if he was this cold-hearted person, and he is not like that."

Morales, 22, was indicted on murder and other charges as acts of terror in May, along with 18 other members of the St. James Boys Gang, a Mexican and Mexican-American street gang.

Morales faces the most serious charge of second-degree murder as a terrorist act. A New York grand jury returned the charges against him in connection with the shooting death of 10-year-old Melanie Mendez, who died from gunshot wounds two years earlier.

Morales plans to plead innocent, said his attorney, Lewis Alperin. No date has yet been set for his trial.

Morales is the first gang member in New York to be indicted under the state's terrorism statute, which became law shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

If the charges did not include the terrorism stipulation, he would face a sentence of 25 years to life if found guilty. With the stipulation, he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

PROMOTING TERRORISM?

At least 33 states passed laws amending criminal codes related to acts of terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most changes focused on money laundering, cyberterrorism, agri-terrorism and supporting terrorist groups.

New York's use of the statute to prosecute gang-related crime has sparked disagreement among lawmakers who voted for the legislation.

A spokeswoman for state Sen. Michael Balboni, who sponsored the bill, said he does not mind that prosecutors have decided gang violence is a form of domestic terrorism and are using the statute to prosecute Morales.

"Gangs are a forum to promote terrorism," said Balboni spokeswoman Lisa Angerame. "Therefore, the anti-terrorism statue would be applicable against them, even if the original intent for this law was not exactly to prosecute them."

Others say the law is not being used as intended.

"It is not that I want to defend gangs," said state Rep. Jeffrey Dinowitz. "But it should never be justifiable to use laws with purposes other than their original intent.

"We already have the appropriate laws to prosecute gang members for their crimes," he added.

The anti-terror law passed overwhelmingly in the New York Senate 53-1.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, who brought the charges against Morales, said the terrorism stipulation was justified.

"The obvious need for this statue is to protect society against acts of political terror," Johnson said in a statement. "However, the terror perpetrated by gangs, which all too often occurs on the streets of New York, also fits squarely within the scope of this statute."

The 70-count indictment said the gang members conspired to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population."

It included a long list of crimes cited as evidence they terrorized a city neighborhood, including allegations they harassed and robbed customers of a local restaurant, fired guns into a crowded park, shot a teenager in the face and slashed someone's throat.

Some residents say the law is being abused.

"We cannot compare gang violence with big scale terrorist attacks," said resident Miriam Medina.

Local store manager Lidia Chavez added: "Gang violence and terrorism are two different things."

But Eve Santana, owner of a bridal shop, said while maybe not on the scale of bin Laden, "of course they are terrorists."

"They do terrorize neighborhoods. Innocent bystanders die ... and they have to pay."