A strategy by federal prosecutors in Minnesota to take gang members, and their guns, off the street survived its first appellate test this week when a three-judge panel from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conspiracy convictions of four north Minneapolis gang leaders.
But two of the men will need to be resentenced after the federal appellate panel overturned their sentences on other grounds.
The Eighth Circuit took up the appeals of Veltrez Black, Tywin Bender, Jabari Johnson and Darryl Parker following their convictions in an 11-defendant conspiracy case that stemmed from what authorities called an “all-out shooting gang war” between the rival Taliban and One-Nine Block Dipset gangs. A jury convicted Black after a six-day trial in October 2015, after all other defendants pleaded guilty.
Instead of trying to charge hard-to-prove gang murders, the U.S. attorney’s office opted to target nine gang members and two “straw purchasers” for a scheme in which felons prohibited from owning guns recruited friends to legally buy firearms that the gangs later stockpiled. Last year, one veteran federal prosecutor from Minnesota who led the prosecution traveled to Chicago to share details of the strategy with law enforcement.
Prosecutors said the gang war intensified with a 2013 killing at Epic nightclub and surged during the next year. The U.S. attorney’s office hastened its charging process after Johnson was shot six times by a rival gunman in Brooklyn Center. Johnson later told agents that they had curbed even more bloodshed because his gang “was just about to shoot them up.” He led agents to a storage locker that held three handguns, two AK-47 rifles and high-capacity magazines, and forensics experts later testified that DNA from several co-conspirators turned up on some of the weapons.
“This case resulted from a gang war that had been waged for years with numerous people killed and wounded on both sides, including some innocent bystanders,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen in a statement Tuesday night. “The battlefield included a downtown Minneapolis nightclub, Target Field, and even Hennepin County Medical Center.
“Our charging strategy was based on the idea that, if the participants cannot be prosecuted for the murders and shootings themselves because witnesses are too afraid to testify, then we will hold them accountable for the guns they illegally obtained and used to carry out the gang war. Today the Court of Appeals affirmed the legal principle that federal conspiracy laws can be used to address this type of organized, violent gang activity.”
Writing for the appellate panel on Tuesday, Chief Judge Lavenski Smith concluded that prosecutors properly provided evidence about gang violence for context and rejected Black’s argument that his Facebook and Instagram posts should have been excluded at trial.
“Because social media has played a significant role in escalating the feud between the One-Nine and the Taliban, Black’s public posts show support for his brother’s gang beyond merely watching on the sidelines,” Smith wrote. “These posts demonstrate Black picked a side in the conflict.”
But the Eighth Circuit vacated Black’s conviction for illegally possessing a firearm during an April 2014 police chase captured on a dashboard camera. The camera did not show Black handling the weapon or throwing it from the vehicle, which was out of view for about three seconds. Judge Steven Colloton dissented, writing that jurors could infer that Black chose to toss the gun “at the precise moment when he knew that the officers could not see him.”
R.J. Zayed, a lawyer for Black, said in a statement that “the jury’s verdict was based on … nothing more that the government’s speculative arguments as to what the actual evidence showed. As the court found, convictions must be based on actual evidence, and not speculation or conjecture.”
Zayed said the reversal means Black will face a maximum of five years in prison instead of the original 15-year term.
The Eighth Circuit also vacated Bender’s 130-month sentence because it concluded that U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle should not have added an enhancement for obstruction of justice. Bender was sentenced both for the gun conspiracy conviction and for a later conviction related to threatening witnesses who testified at Black’s trial. The appellate judges agreed with both convictions but wrote that Bender did not deserve the obstruction enhancement because his threats were not an attempt to interfere with witnesses whose testimony would be used against him during sentencing.
“We are gratified by the court’s ruling that Mr. Bender received too long of a prison term,” said Paul Engh, an attorney for Bender. “At resentencing it is our hope that his hard time will be reduced by roughly two years.”