By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federal prosecutors announced a crackdown on the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang in June, charging 16 people with running drugs and cellphone rings inside California prisons and trying to orchestrate hits on fellow inmates and rivals on the outside.
Since then, some of the defendants housed at the Sacramento County Main Jail have monitored security procedures, discussed the types of locks and keys securing their cells, conspired to have a cellphone smuggled into the jail and constructed several handmade ropes from jail clothing, prosecutors say.
“Deputies found what appeared to be a cipher/coded message key in the pod accessed solely by the AB defendants,” prosecutors wrote in one court filing based on jail records. “It appeared as though one inmate was trying to teach another inmate how to use the code in further communication.”
Now, prosecutors are asking a federal judge to have 10 of the defendants — eight housed at the jail and two others at California State Prison, Sacramento — appear at routine court hearings by video conferencing rather than have them brought to court over the course of what is expected to be a yearslong prosecution effort.
“The high-risk defendants pose extraordinary security risks during their appearance at, and transportation to and from, court proceedings,” prosecutors argue in a motion to limits the inmates’ movements to court hearings.
“Moreover, during their brief stay in the Sacramento County Jail thus far, the eight high-risk defendants who are housed there already have been found creating ropes and fishing lines, discussing having someone smuggle in cell phones, possessing a cipher for coded communications, writing handwritten notes expressing disdain for law enforcement, the federal government, and this prosecution, as well as asking numerous detailed questions about the locks and about transportation to and from the courthouse as well as outside hospital visits.”
Lawyers for the inmates, who already have complained vigorously about the treatment and access to defense materials inside the jail, have denounced the idea of limiting their ability to appear in court as “unprecedented in modern federal criminal litigation.”
“Importantly, the government does not, and cannot, allege a single disruptive act by any of the targeted defendants at any of those hearings, because there have been none,” attorneys Kresta Daly and Richard Novak wrote on behalf of the 10 men, including their client, Jason Corbett.
“There’s nothing to suggest that these guys have any intention of escaping,” Daly said in an interview, adding that the government cannot be permitted to decide which court hearings are important enough to require their physical presence.
“A defendant in a criminal case has a right to be present at every stage,” Daly added.
The jail sits literally across the street from the federal courthouse where the defendants’ case is being heard in downtown Sacramento, but moving them that short distance requires extensive security precautions because of their records for violence, prosecutors argue.
There is precedent in Sacramento for such concerns.
In March 1990, during the trial of an Aryan Brotherhood gang member in Sacramento Superior Court, Paul “Cornfed” Schneider stabbed a defense attorney four times with a weapon he had smuggled into the courthouse. Attorney Philip Cozens survived the assault, and Schneider was sentenced to life in prison.
Schneider is not involved in the current federal case, and lawyers for those inmates argue that the only history of attempted escape by the defendants involves incidents with two of the men 35 and 48 years ago, respectively.
“There’s one man who has an escape conviction that’s literally as old as I am,” Daly said.
But prosecutors have emphasized the criminal histories of the men while they have been in custody.
Corbett, 47, a convicted murder serving a 25 years to life sentence, has committed so many disciplinary violations in state prison — possessing cellphones, hiding a razor blade in a book, and assaults — that he has lost nearly three years’ worth of good time credits, prosecutors say.
Since being booked into the jail at 651 I St. on June 28, he has been overheard discussing having a cellphone smuggled inside and was found to have constructed a four-foot rope from torn clothing, court documents say.
One of his co-defendants, Aryan Brotherhood leader Ronald “Renegade” Yandell, who is serving 50 years to life for murder, has been overheard “speaking entirely in Spanish,” a practice court documents say other defendants have adopted when deputies can hear them. He is not cited in court filings as possessing contraband in the jail, but did make clear he has certain expectations, prosecutors say.
“On Yandell’s first day, he provided floor deputies a list of demands which included a microwave, nine hours of dayroom per day, hot water, bed sheets and pillows, three hot meals a day, paid job assignments, self-help classes and an ice machine,” prosecutors wrote.
With five of the defendants, including Corbett and Yandell, facing the possibility of the federal death penalty, their lawyers say it is critical that the men be given the opportunity to discuss the case with them and and study the evidence.
But, they say, the jail has severely limited attorneys’ ability to meet with their clients, forcing them into tiny visiting booths that have no electrical outlets for computers and which are not soundproof, allowing deputies to overhear their conversations.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller ordered some improvements, writing that defendants’ phone calls to attorneys cannot be recorded and that their visits with lawyers must be arranged so that “the content of conversations is not audible outside the visitation booth.”