ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Street gangsters that commit assaults and killings are not terrorists under the statute enacted after hijackers crashed jets into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, New York's highest court unanimously ruled Tuesday.
The Court of Appeals said there's no indication New York lawmakers enacted the measure to elevate gang-on-gang street violence to the status of terrorism, which carries tougher penalties. The court ordered a new trial for Edgar Morales, a member of the St. James Boys gang who was convicted of fatally shooting a 10-year-old bystander and paralyzing a rival gang member at a christening party.
Bronx prosecutors argued the gang sought to intimidate the entire Mexican-American community in the neighborhood. The anti-terrorism law applies to crimes committed with “intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”
The six judges, agreeing with a midlevel court, concluded there was insufficient proof of that. They also said that prosecutors' terrorism theory, which allowed evidence of the gangs' alleged criminal acts over three years, probably prejudiced the jury.
“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 wrote. “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 noted that the legislative findings in support of the statute cited seven terrorist acts, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in Manhattan to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal office building in 1995. The court does not believe that the “discrete criminal transaction against identified gang enemies” allegedly committed by Morales, now 30, in the August 2002 fracas outside a church was designed to intimidate or coerce the neighborhood's entire Mexican-American community, she wrote.
Morales was convicted of manslaughter, attempted murder, weapon possession and conspiracy _ each count enhanced in seriousness by the anti-terrorism law. He was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison. He said he handled the gun but denied firing the five shots.
Calls seeking comment from the Bronx district attorney's office and Morales' attorney were not immediately returned Tuesday.