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In the latest example of using racketeering laws to go after criminal street gangs, federal prosecutors filed murder charges against three alleged members of San Francisco’s “Down Below Gangsters” on Thursday. The alleged gang is a “criminal racketeering enterprise” that engages in assault, murder, drug dealing and other illegal activities dating as far back as 1996, according to a federal complaint. Recently, prosecutors have been turning more and more to the federal racketeering statute, a law originally created to combat traditional organized crime. The charges announced Thursday make the three men eligible for the death penalty, although prosecutors have not yet decided whether they will pursue death. Luke Macaulay, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, said prosecutors like the statute because it “allows judges and juries to get a larger picture of alleged crimes and the overall structure of the organization.” The case represents the latest attempt by the Northern District U.S. Attorney’s office to stop the violence that plagues San Francisco’s most notorious neighborhoods. Earlier federal prosecutions targeted two other alleged gangs in the Bayview-Hunters Point area, “Big Block” and “Westmob.” In the case indicted Thursday, Edgar Diaz, Don Johnson and Rickey Rollins are charged with shooting to death a man in San Francisco’s Sunnydale Housing Development. They are accused of killing Beverly Robinson on April 15, 2004. The case went unsolved until last month, when an informant, a former member of the “Down Below Gangsters,” told San Francisco police about the trio’s alleged involvement, according to court records. The federal complaint says the three men killed Robinson to eliminate him as a witness against them. The night he was killed, the trio were allegedly looking for a gun that had been used in an earlier homicide and was hidden in Robinson’s car. San Francisco police officers cross-designated as federal law enforcement officers investigated the case. In a statement, Ryan said he was happy with the cooperation between state and federal authorities. “Our federal statutes provide extremely effective tools to address violent gang crime on our city streets,” Ryan said. Going after gang cases in federal court is not without controversy. Defense attorneys have argued that such matters belong in state court rather than in the federal building. “From the viewpoint of a lawyer who has defended cases in state and federal court, it is inexplicable to me that the U.S. attorney’s office is indicting local street gang-related murder and drug cases in the form of federal racketeering cases. These cases have typically been prosecuted in state court,” said John Philipsborn, who represents defendant Johnson. Last year, after the killing of San Francisco police Officer Isaac Espinoza, defense lawyers speculated that Ryan’s office might try to pick up the prosecution of accused shooter David Hill. District Attorney Kamala Harris refused to seek the death penalty against Hill, and local politicians urged state Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Ryan to step in. So far, Hill is only facing charges in state court. Although Ryan, a former state prosecutor and San Francisco judge, has no qualms about pursuing the death penalty, the cases are rare here. Currently there are only two other matters in the Northern District in which federal prosecutors have obtained authority to seek the death penalty. The defendants in Thursday’s case, who first appeared in court on the federal complaint March 10, are scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.

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