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Fedz in the ’hood
Ten years after Boston’s gang-violence problem dissipated, the federal government is prosecuting more of the city’s street criminals than ever. Now it wants to start killing them.

WHEN GOVERNOR MITT Romney announced the recommendations of his death-penalty commission in early May, the proposal for a supposedly error-free capital-punishment system met with almost universal skepticism. The plan "will do nothing to enhance public safety," the Boston Globe editorialized. Even the ordinarily tough-on-crime Boston Herald trashed the initiative as "hideously cumbersome," and added that recent reports of mistakes in the collection, handling, and presentation of physical evidence undermined the claim that science would guarantee perfection.

Odd, then, that so little attention has been paid to the fact that the death penalty — without the limitations and safeguards of Romney’s proposal — is alive and well, so to speak, in the Bay State.

The federal government, through the local US attorney’s office, can always seek the death penalty for eligible federal crimes. But whereas Janet Reno, attorney general under Bill Clinton, largely steered clear of doing so in jurisdictions that have banned the practice at the state or territory level, current AG John Ashcroft has done the exact opposite. He has sought death disproportionately not only in the Bay State but in places like Michigan, Vermont, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, which have no death penalty, and in states like New York, which have a death penalty on the books but rarely use it, says Richard Deiter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, in Washington, DC.

Locally, Ashcroft’s zeal to spread capital punishment to Massachusetts has dovetailed with another of his prosecutorial signatures: federalization of street-level crime. Ten years ago, federal prosecution was used sparingly but to great effect against gangs in Boston. Today, the feds are prosecuting more street crime than ever. And they aren’t shy about inflicting the ultimate punishment.

Ashcroft has already instructed Michael Sullivan, the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, to seek the death penalty for two alleged Boston gang members, 26-year-old Darryl Green and 21-year-old Branden Morris, both charged in the August 2001 murder of Terrell Gethers. A third, 24-year-old Brima Wurie, has also been charged with a capital crime — the murder of Luis Carvalho, in 2000 — and will face Ashcroft’s decision later this year. A fourth such case appears to be on its way: in February the federal government took the step of assigning a death-penalty attorney to 24-year-old Amando Monteiro. He currently faces drug charges but will, according to sources, be charged with a homicide as well.

Now consider what Sullivan plans to do to Charles Jaynes, convicted in Middlesex County and given 15 years to life in prison for the murder of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley. Sullivan argues that the sentence does not sufficiently serve the national interest, so he intends to prosecute Jaynes again, in federal court, for the sole purpose of upping the penalty to death. (State and US courts are separate, individually sovereign entities, so federal prosecutors are free to try Jaynes for the federal crime of crossing state lines to have sexual relations with a child under 12, resulting in the child’s death, even though the state has already convicted him for second-degree murder.) Sullivan is just waiting for Ashcroft’s approval to move forward on Jaynes — and asking Ashcroft to endorse a death-penalty request is like asking Wile E. Coyote to sign for an ACME delivery.

Although Jaynes himself was not involved in gang-related crime, his case highlights a new development in Massachusetts law, in which state-convicted gang members — vulnerable to federal prosecution under US anti-racketeering laws — may face new death-penalty trials. Says Sullivan, "There are going to be circumstances in this district, while I am the United States attorney, where we will take a look at what we consider an unjust result, where the federal interest has not been vindicated, or there are opportunities to ensure that the community is going to be better protected," and consider opening death-penalty trials.

IN THE LATE 1980s and early 1990s, Boston law enforcement fashioned a new and impressively effective approach to fighting street crime, dubbed Operation Ceasefire. It brought together every available participant and used every possible method at its disposal, including, controversially, the US Attorney’s Office, then headed locally by Donald K. Stern. Stern attended task-force meetings personally, and prosecuted some high-profile cases. Most infamously, his office put Freddie Cardoza away for 20 years for having a single bullet in his pocket, in violation of a federal law prohibiting felons from possessing arms or ammunition. "I certainly got criticized for some of those cases," says Stern, now a partner with the law firm Bingham McCutchen. "But careful, strategic use of federal resources for urban gang crime is appropriate."

"The use of federal sanctions was very important in Ceasefire in knocking the homicide rate way down," says David Kennedy, a criminal-justice researcher at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, who has written extensively about Operation Ceasefire in Boston. Kennedy believes that the effectiveness of the federal prosecutions lay in their judicious use against the very worst groups who ignored warnings to clean up their act. That included some of the most notorious gangs in Boston, such as the Intervale Posse and the Castlegate Road Gang. "The reason [Intervale Posse] went down was because we told them to stop shooting their guns, and they didn’t," Kennedy says. "Part of what was so important about Ceasefire was that all parties pretty much agreed that the way that authority was being used was reasonable." Stern concurs. "Federal resources are best used as a scalpel, rather than a sledgehammer," he says. "The art is in picking the right cases and finding the right leverage."

But today, the sledgehammer is back out — while the reasons for using the federal court have mostly gone away. Boston is simply not overrun with highly organized gangs the way it was 20 years ago. "We openly acknowledge that the picture’s different," says Paul Joyce, Boston Police detective-department superintendent and former head of the department’s gang unit. Today, the problem is that individual criminals operate in looser bonds of cooperation. "In the ’80s and ’90s they were open about their gang status, they would tell you where their turf is," Joyce says. Now, "a lot of these ‘gangs’ are young kids who happen to hang out on the same street corner," says Michael Doolin, a Boston defense attorney.

Theodore Heinrich, the assistant US attorney who prosecutes many gang cases, including all four of the potential death-penalty cases named above, disputes this premise. "The notion that back then there were these hierarchical, organized gangs, and now there are none, just individuals committing crime, is flat-out wrong," he says. Gangs have simply learned discretion from the prosecutions of the 1990s, and know not to advertise their gang membership, Heinrich argues. "The violence problem is still groups of kids — whether you define them as gangs or associates or crews or posses or just friends — who commit violent crime as part of that group."

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Issue Date: June 25 - July 1, 2004
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