2008 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Bobbi Bernstein and Alex Bustamante

Successfully prosecuted United States v. Saldana, convicting four murderers and marked the first time the federal hate crime statutes have been used to combat racial violence committed by members of a street gang.

In June 2006, Bobbi Bernstein and Alex Bustamante, along with their team from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI, successfully prosecuted United States v. Saldana, involving the prosecution of four Latino gang members for the racially motivated murder of two African-American men, and the racially motivated harassment and assault of numerous other citizens in a gang-ridden neighborhood in Los Angeles. The murder investigation began in 2004, and the team quickly realized that the case was about much more than a single act of racially motivated violence. It was about upholding the basic constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to live where they want and go about their lives without fear of harassment or violence due to race, gender or beliefs. The team used innovative legal strategies and uncommon collaboration across federal agencies to secure convictions and life sentences against the murderers. But more important, they reminded a group of long-victimized citizens in Los Angeles that the justice system works for them too, helping to restore a faith in America they had long lost.

On April 18, 1999, Kenny Wilson, an African-American man, was brutally gunned down on a street in a section of Los Angeles claimed by a Latino gang, the Avenues. During the course of the investigation into Wilson’s death and through extensive interviews with community residents, the FBI case agent and federal prosecutors discovered that the defendants and their fellow gang members had also participated for many years in other acts of racial violence aimed at African-Americans in the gang’s predominantly-Latino neighborhood. By reviewing reports of every Latino-on-Black crime that had occurred in the neighborhood, the prosecution team learned that the gang members and their co-conspirators had also harassed, assaulted and terrorized countless other black victims, including another African-American man, Chris Bowser, who was murdered by the defendants and their fellow gang members.

To combat this campaign of racial violence, Bernstein and Bustamante developed an innovative and aggressive prosecution strategy that led to the first use of federal hate crime and civil rights conspiracy statutes to target racially-motivated violence committed by members of a traditional street gang. In order to prove the civil rights case, the government had to prove not only that Kenny Wilson’s murder was racially motivated, but also that the crime was intended to interfere with Wilson’s federally protected right to use a public facility – in this case the public street Wilson was using, trying to park his car, when he was shot and killed by the gang members. The government also had to prove that the other racially motivated violence was part of a conspiracy to drive black people out of the gang’s neighborhood. The strategy of charging these civil rights violations set the bar high for conviction, but allowed prosecutors to go after the whole range of the gang’s behaviors, from violence to intimidation to harassment to murder. To support this strategy, the team developed evidence that the Avenues gang believed they owned the streets, and that one of their core missions was to use violence to keep black people out of the territory they considered to be theirs.

Once the defendants were indicted on federal civil rights charges, the prosecution team turned its efforts to defending the charges against repeated legal challenges filed by the skilled and experienced defense attorneys who represented the defendants. In voluminous legal motions that were thoroughly-researched and compellingly-argued, the prosecutors broke new ground by successfully defending the indictment against repeated constitutional and statutory challenges.

At trial, the prosecution team worked as a seamless unit to present to the jury a vivid and accurate image of the terror these defendants wreaked on the small African-American community in their neighborhood. The team met repeatedly with terrified witnesses, earning their trust, cooperation and respect. The prosecution team empowered witnesses and victims to share their frightening stories with the jury, and convinced two gang members to cooperate with the prosecution and testify against their co-conspirators. The prosecutors on this team exhibited exceptional litigation skills, crafting an insightful presentation of the evidence and delivering powerful arguments that moved the jury.

In August 2006, a jury convicted four defendants, finding that they had engaged in a six-year campaign of violence against African-Americans who lived in the neighborhood claimed by the Avenues gang, and that the defendants murdered two African-American men in cold blood. This innovative and successful prosecution vindicated the rights of a small, beleaguered African-American community and restored faith in the judicial system for many of the victims and their relatives.