Organized-crime act targets drug gangs

Longer sentences for lesser crimes often the result

November 01, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Looking tired and resigned, Shaneka Penix stood before U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles in his Baltimore courtroom yesterday morning and quietly asked for mercy. "I believe I deserve a second chance," she said.

Penix was caught selling crack cocaine in August and September of last year. It was her first serious infraction. But because of her affiliation with the Maryland division of a drug gang known as the Tree Top Piru Bloods, she was charged and convicted of conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, or RICO. At 23, Penix, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, was facing a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 10 years.

"When you're convicted under RICO, the sentences are a lot longer than they are for the base offenses," said Frank Razzano, an adjunct law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an editor of a RICO law journal.

That is among the reasons prosecutors like it. The law was enacted nearly 40 years ago to take down traditional, Godfather-style Mafia members, though it is rarely used for that anymore. Instead, it has become a widely used tool against more contemporary mobsters, the drug gangs terrorizing U.S. cities.

It allows prosecutors to charge multiple members of a gang simultaneously with the crimes of their colleagues, simply because of their connection. They are charged and tried in federal court, which offers tough sentences and, unlike state courts, no parole.

Penix was one of 28 defendants listed on an indictment; 26 of them are charged with racketeering. Four people, including Penix, have pleaded guilty in the case so far. But Quarles appeared unconvinced yesterday that it was an appropriate conviction for Penix, in part because of the mandatory sentence it carries. The length of the term "will in fact create an injustice," he said. He sentenced her to 120 months anyway.

"I am bound by the law," he said.

In Baltimore, more than 1,800 adults belong to about 45 criminal street gangs - including the Bloods and Crips - according to a database developed by the University of Maryland and the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. The Tree Top Piru Bloods are accused of planning and committing robberies, drug trafficking, murders, circulating firearms and committing violent acts "as deemed necessary," according to the Maryland U.S. attorney's office.

They grew out of the Los Angeles Bloods gang as a subset named after a group of streets in Compton, Calif. Members spread throughout the country, with a division beginning in Maryland about nine years ago in the Washington County Detention Center in Hagerstown. Steve Willock was said to have led the gang's operations from prison; he was sentenced last month as part of this case to 25 years in prison.

People join gangs for varied reasons, researchers say. Some because it is what is expected - a family legacy; others because they have no family and are looking for brotherhood. Penix got caught up in it because there was something "lacking in her own heart," her attorney, Richard C. Bittner, told the judge. "She was missing a father; that led her to get involved with these men."

Penix was raised by her mother, who sat in the nearly empty courtroom yesterday. She was still trying to come to terms with what happened to her daughter, Bittner said.

Penix apologized for her actions but offered no explanation. Quarles recommended that she be placed in Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia so that her family, including her daughter who lives in Cumberland, would be close enough to visit regularly.

In an interview, Bittner called the sentence and RICO conviction "overreaching."

"This woman was a low-level young lady who really was taken advantage of by some corrupt, evil people," he said. "Now we have a disproportionate sentence because of it."

But Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said the sentence reflected the woman's crimes.

"The reason why we prosecuted her was not just because she distributed the crack cocaine but because of the evidence that she was an active member of the racketeering enterprise. In fact, she admitted that," he said. She reported to Willock and gave him money in addition to the drug dealing, according to the indictment.

Rosenstein's office has charged dozens of gang members with racketeering, including Maryland participants in the deadly MS-13 crime organization.

RICO

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 is a federal law that allows for harsh penalties for members of criminal organizations. It was originally designed to bring down mafia members, but it was often used in the 1980s and 1990s in civil suits against white-collar professionals. Most recently, it has been used to target organized drug and street gang members.

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