Do Gang Charges Bias Juries?

by Antoinnette Borbon

In the wake of Friday’s sentencing of the four young defendants who were each found guilty of a gang enhancement, it provoked deep thought about how influenced a juror is upon hearing that term.

In one of the trials involving the four defendants, jurors expressed to the court that they felt family members of these alleged gang members were blocking the doors of the courthouse. That was taken as an intimidating factor for jurors, but ironically, none of that particular jury panel came back with a verdict. In fact, that was the first hung jury in this case.

The appearance of any so-called gang member to the jurors was simply that of Hispanic family members who attended to support their loved ones. The gang accusations were unfounded.

In a past supposed gang-related case, “Operation Red Sash” – a case that entailed men who had previously been gang members who sold drugs to undercover cops, it subsequently, after a year-long investigation, was charged to be to benefit “the Broderick boys,” a notorious gang out of West Sacramento.

But the effort to prove that charge was futile. As it turned out, it was more about ex-gang members who had prior felony convictions. Some had begun selling drugs again to feed a habit, or to make money to support themselves.

The others who were arrested in the case took a plea deal, some just to be released from jail after nearly two years.

In both cases, the gang enhancements seemed to be the prime focus – perhaps because, if proven, they carry more serious consequences.

In a statement given to the Vanguard by a previous juror after “Operation Red Sash,” the juror, after carefully weighing all evidence, said there was not enough to prove that “the minimal drug sales were to benefit any gang.”

In another statement given by a previous juror in the recent case against the four younger defendants, two jurors were not completely convinced on the felony charges, but were able to agree it was to benefit a gang.

But why?  One juror admitted it was partly because of all the gang-related testimony – although the juror admitted that he did not understand the specifics of gang laws or what elements had to be met to render a guilty verdict.

It didn’t help the defense’s case, either, that the gang expert for the prosecution was allowed to point out a suspected gang member who sat in during the first trial.

It may have created fear for some jurors, but we can only make assumptions.

Nonetheless, potential gang connections seem to be the focus in each gang-related trial.

Does this influence the decision for jurors? One can opine that this factor carries a greater weight than other case factors.

Even if unintended, it seems to influence a decision of guilt. Perhaps that is the purpose of the focus.

In Juan Fuentes’ case, the gang conviction together with the felony second-degree robbery and the prior strike gave him a sentence of many years.

But not all hope is lost for Mr. Fuentes. If he wins an appeal, he may get the chance at a new trial. If the felony charged can be reduced to misdemeanor, it may reduce his sentence, even if he is found guilty of the gang charge.

Of course, each case is different with completely different circumstances and by no means is the Vanguard defending gang crime. It is simply taking a look at the influence of focus and how it can directly affect a juror.

This case falls short of proving any gang benefit, in my observations, but, according to the law, any gang slur can change that – apparently even if no one knows who said it.

The Vanguard does not have information on what Fuentes’ intentions are as of yet, but will update if further details become available.

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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21 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    one of the pernicious aspects of gang law as the vanguard has frequently pointed out is that prosecutors have to establish a pattern of gang activity and they do that by bringing in cases that have nothing to do with the case at hand.  such cases would be ordinarily inadmissible under the evidence code, but become admissible due to gang law rules.

  2. Anon

    Is the author suggesting gang affiliation should not be mentioned in a trial, or that gang enhancements should not be allowed by law?

    If one is accused of child molestation, murder, armed robbery, it certainly makes the defendant appear more guilty, no?

  3. Antoinnette

    Not at all, Anon. Understandably, it has to be if it is suspected. My point is just that if it is always the main focus, jurors tend to sway towards guilty whether or not they even understand the law. Often times, as I have heard by jurors. once they hear it is allegedly gang affiliated, some minds are made up.

    As I stated, I am in no way defending any gang activity or any violent crimes that are associated with gangs only that in these two cases, there was little or no proof it was to benefit any gang.

     

    But, again, this has been my observations as I have listened to all the evidence in the these cases, more than once.

     

    Thanks for reading…

    1. Anon

      Antoinette, thanks for your thoughtful answer.  The bottom line is that any accusation such as gang affiliation, pedophilia, murder, rape, strong-arm robbery will “prejudice” a jury.  Just being accused of anything prejudices – many think just because someone is arrested for a crime, the arrestee must be guilty of something.  That is the nature of our justice system, and perhaps one of its weaknesses as well.  One would like to think jurors will look at all the facts without bias, but that is not reality.  Judges, prosecutors and public defenders/defense lawyers have their biases too!

      1. Antoinnette

        Yes, totally agree, Anon.

        Unfortunately, the media can fuel that pre-judgment as well. I will admit, I may be guilty myself of that on occasion…lol

        Yes, it is sad that we are guilty until proven innocent instead of the other way around but words/accusations can loom large to the public and we know that most of the time, no one really knows the truth?

        In fact, I always say, there are two sides of the story and then there is the truth, of which we seldom here.

        Too, I hope in the future that a past gang affiliation, or conviction, especially one from a juvenile record will be disallowed in trial but it is an uphill battle I suppose.

         

        @Sisterhood, that is unfortunate and I am sorry to hear. I agree, cash should be awarded if a person has had their life tainted over accusations proven to be false. But…that would be in a perfect world..lol

        But I will also say, there are a lot of good/great cops out there. It is that of a “black eye,” to any department when one of their own has corruption, as I was told by a close friend/ cop, but it happens. Something that definitely changes our perspective, indeed.

        Thank you for the input, both of you! and thanks again for reading.

         

         

      2. Tia Will

        Anon

        many think just because someone is arrested for a crime, the arrestee must be guilty of something”

        And this is in direct opposition to our principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. It would seem that many cannot hold this principle in their mind once an arrest has been made because they, as some posters here also do, is to hold the police as always right until proven wrong instead of recognizing that they are as prone to error as any other human being.

        This is one of the main weaknesses that I see in our judicial system. We give the police and the prosecutors rather than the ( still innocent under our principles) defendant the benefit of the doubt as well as vastly more power both in charging and in resources in the case of those unable to provide their own attorney.

      3. zaqzaq

        Logic supports the conclusion that a person arrested for the crime who has been had a hearing where a judge has ruled there is sufficient evidence to believe that the defendant has committed the crime to have a jury trial probably committed a crime.  Who would challenge the proposition that the vast majority of the people arrested for a crime have committed a crime?  The judge then tells the jury (they have to ignore common sense in) that they must presume that the defendant is innocent at the start of the trial and that he is not guilty until the case is proven beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecutor.  Then you have your trial.   Even if acquitted the defendant could still have committed the crime.  Just look at the OJ case acquitted in the criminal trial and liable in the civil trial wrongful death trial.  You cannot expect a juror to leave common sense and their live experiences at the steps of the courthouse when they arrive for jury duty.

        1. sisterhood

          I am happy for you that you have (probably) had the good fortune in your personal life to never get negative attention from law enforcement. I am happy for you that you have been lucky enough to never be in the company of an extremely mentally ill individual, suffering and delusional, and quite capable of wrongfully accusing you of a heinous crime that destroyed your reputation. I really am happy for you, because I would not wish my own experiences on my worst enemy.

          As I mentioned earlier, I’ve sat on two juries and woudl prefer to let a (fair, intelligent) judge decide my fate over the jury members I had to deal with.

        2. sisterhood

          “Who would challenge the proposition that the vast majority of the people arrested for a crime have committed a crime?” 

          California leads the nation in wrongful convictions. One of many reasons I took my California state retirement out of state and I’m spending the money the state of CA gave me in another state. And I tell my friends who are thinking of retiring in CA why I left.

          After my own experience with CA’s criminal injustice system, I don’t know if the vast majority are guilty. I believe most prosecutors don’t really care; they just want the win so they can get promoted. I do believe that low income people charged with a crime are at a disadvantage.  I also believe that brown skinned people and low income people are more frequently prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated  than rich white people.

        3. Antoinnette

          ZAQZAQ,

          Yes, I  know all of this, remember, I hear instructions over and over before each trial and during any prelim, the evidence presented before the court.  Nobody said people should leave their common sense at the door? In fact, I agree with you too, there are several out there who have gotten away with crimes and continue to do so. My point is, people are biased towards guilt when the whole, “gang,” term is used. You have to admit, for most layman people, it can be intimidating and scary to some.  But, of course, as Anon put it, most are biased on all other crimes too, once they hear the charges.

          However, yes, probably likely something illegal took place? I agree with you there.

          Admittedly,  I used to assume guilt after just one prelim  until I actually sat in trial and was astounded at how wrong I was in my prejudging. It didn’t prove the person was entirely innocent, but I learned that you must hear all of the facts before you can come to a reasonable decision. Even then, sometimes you can be fooled. I agree.

          OJ’s case was an example of a guilty man getting away with a heinous crime, totally agree.

          But the irony in that case is this, he got away with double homicide and then went to Nevada to rob and ended up with 75 years, didn’t he? To me, that is providence at work, if you are a believer of it.

          Another infamous case where I felt that a guilty person walked away free, was the Casey Anthony one. Look at all the evidence against her in that case? Duck tape on the girls mouth, the shovel, the blanket she used, inconsistent story one after the other? and yet during trial her defense threw a curve ball and made her life out to be that of a poor abused child and the father, who spoiled her, accusations of molestation? Just a guestimation but jurors may have focused on her pitiful life? Even the mother changed her story several times while on the stand? I watched the whole trial, every witness who testified in that case. If I had been a juror, the facts and I mean “real,” facts in the case would have convinced me of her guilt, nothing less, nothing more.

          Of course, that is my common sense, we are all different in our perceptions, aren’t we? and that may be where one of the problems lie. Each juror has a different way of looking, hearing and seeing the evidence, then comprehending it all and off to deliberate. Repeatedly, asked to “use their common sense.”

          Personally, I don’t give heed to a lot of He said/she said, type of evidence. I look more at all the stuff that is “black and white,” documents, direct, DNA, eye witnesses. It would be the foundation of how I would build my case, then add the circumstances and put it all together. But of course, there must be a more than likely “reasonability,” for my prosecution or defense for the alleged crime to have happened. (just my logic if I were an attorney)

          As for “Operation Red Sash,” case, never proven it was to benefit a gang? and one defendant at least, had absolutely nothing to do with the other guys, never even knew them. The only thing he was guilty of was absconding. He took a plea to get out after doing over a year, but maintains his innocence with documented proof, only reason I say.

          Do I think any of them deserve cash? No, they were aquitted on gang charges, rightly convicted of what they were guilty of. No compensation can be given unless they spend years in prison wrongfully convicted, and that must be proven by the Attorney Generals office, pretty sure?

          Again, ZAQZAQ, not defending any gangs or the illegal acts thereof. I am all for cleaning up the streets if you have the right people and the crime is related by proven facts?

           

           

  4. sisterhood

    Of course it biases jurors, the same way possession of adult porn biases most jurors. I believe jurors have certain beliefs they cannot set aside and rationally ignore. I have sat on two juries. It was a very scary experience, hearing how folks make decisions. I think I would ask for a non-jury trial if I was ever wrongfully accused. Most of the folks on my jury panel were not people I would even care to call my “peers”. Too judgy and self righteous.

    There was an ex sheriff  in my office who actually bragged that he was on a jury & put away a gang member for life- “that’s one less gang member on the street.” He also bragged that the case he was on was an execution style murdre, and he was glad the other gang member was murdered, because that meant two gang members were off the street.  (I was actually glad he worked in my office and he was no longer doing damage as a Sac Co. sheriff.)

    1. Antoinnette

      Yes, I have heard some stories too, Sisterhood. I think what floored me the most was hearing that people wanted to just go home, “tired,” and didn’t care enough to look over the evidence  enough. So they were willing to convict just to get home on a ‘Friday. Fortunately, they deliberated longer and came back with a fair verdict according to all the evidence lain before them. *Operation Red Sash Case.

      @Anon….it is with great pleasure I cover and write….:)

  5. sisterhood

    I assume there is some sort of grant reimbursement to the D.A. for gang convictions- cash for a conviction?

    Too bad there is no cash for acquittals, when wrongfully accused.

    1. Anon

      Yes, particularly in a case where the defendant has had to pay for his/her own lawyer.  I also think much depends on why a mistake was made as to whether there should be recompense and how much.  Was it an “honest” mistake, or because law enforcement was negligent in some way?  I remember a case some years ago, in which the wrong guy was convicted.  The victim identified the defendant as her attacker.  Two years lady the real perpetrator was caught.  In the newspaper there were side by side pictures published of the exonerated defendant who had been in jail for two years and the real perpetrator.  The pair looked exactly alike, two peas in a pod, right down to their ethnicity and the goatee they both were sporting.  It was downright eerie – what do they call that, a doppleganger (exact double)?

        1. Anon

          Yes, if DNA evidence would have determined innocence or guilt, a DNA test should be mandatory.  But often cases have no DNA traces, e.g. rape where a condom was used.

    2. zaqzaq

      Sisterhood states, “Too bad there is no cash for acquittals, when wrongfully accused.”  

      How do you define “wrongly accused”?  Someone who is acquitted in the criminal trial or some higher standard?  Should the defendants have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they did not commit the crime for the cash award?  Do you believe that any of the defendants in the Red Sash case should receive cash awards?

      What is the basis for your assumption that the DA has some sort of grant reimbursement for gang convictions?  I cannot imagine a grant that rewards cash for convictions.  There would be no  valid public policy that supports any cash for convictions.  There may be public policy objectives that support a grant that funds a Deputy DA to prosecute a class of offenses such as domestic violence or driving under the influence in order to encourage elected DA’s to vigorously prosecute these criminals.

      1. Adrian Arias Gonzalez

        The real problem is that the D.A. bases their production value on convictions. Being fair went out the window a long time ago when the prison system become profitable.

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