ALBANY - The state's highest court ruled yesterday that criminal activity traditionally ascribed to gangs cannot be prosecuted under the anti-terrorism statutes enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Muslim extremists.
The Court of Appeals not only found in its 6-0 decision that Bronx prosecutors improperly invoked the anti-terrorism law against Edgar Morales, a member of a street gang known as the St. James Boys, but that by pursuing their terrorism-themed prosecution, they "unduly prejudiced" Morales by tying him to years of criminal activities by other members of his gang unrelated to the offenses at issue.
The court in People v. Morales, 186, threw out Morales' conviction for first-degree manslaughter, second-degree attempted murder, weapons possession and conspiracy and ordered a new trial.
The Court of Appeals said the crux of the prosecution's case against Morales was that he allegedly committed a "crime of terrorism" under Penal Law §490.25. The state statute defines a terrorist act as one committed with the "intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a unit of government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a unit of government by murder, assassination or kidnapping."
Prosecutors alleged that Morales and other members of the St. James Boys were engaged in an attempt to "coerce" the Mexican-American population by demonstrating that they were the toughest Mexican gang in the Bronx.
Morales was charged in connection with the fatal shooting at an Aug. 17, 2002, christening party of 10-year-old Melany Mendez, an innocent bystander when Morales shot at a man he and other St. James Boys believed was a member of a rival gang. The man's companion was paralyzed in the incident.
The Court of Appeals said that while the results of the shooting were "tragic," they did not form the basis of a terrorist act.
"If we were to apply a broad definition to 'intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,' the People could invoke the specter of 'terrorism' every time a Blood assaults a Crip or an organized crime family orchestrates the murder of a rival syndicate's soldier," Judge Victoria Graffeo (See Profile) wrote for the court. "But the concept of terrorism has a unique meaning and its implications risk being trivialized if the terminology is applied loosely in situations that do not match our collective understanding of what constitutes a terrorist act."
Graffeo added, "The Legislature did not intend for the crime of terrorism to cover the illegal acts of a gang member committed for the purpose of coercing or intimidating adversaries."
The court said it agreed with the defense's argument that by attempting to invoke the terrorism statute, the prosecution was able to "introduce evidence about numerous alleged criminal acts" committed by members of the St. James Boys members from mid-2001 to mid-2004. Prosecutors ultimately indicted 20 St. James Boys members on 70 counts that included both traditional gang-related violence charges and terrorist acts.