The New York Criminal Law Blog

St. James Boys Case: Will Terrorism Laws Now Cover Street Gangs?

The St. James Boys began as a recreational soccer club. Eventually, the group devolved into a street gang that reigned terror over the Mexican-American population of the West Bronx until a shootout left a 10-year-old girl dead in 2002, reports The New York Times. Fast-forward ten years, and Edgar Morales, who was convicted of manslaughter for his part in the shootout, could make legal history.

A creative prosecutor charged him under a New York post-9/11 anti-terrorism law. The law prohibits violent acts committed “with intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or a broad group of the population, such as an immigrant community. Prosecutors alleged that the St. James Boys’ many acts of violence were undertaken to intimidate the Mexican-American community. Defense attorneys argued that it was typical street violence.

While the trial court sided with the prosecution, an appeals court reversed the decision. Today, the state's highest court will hear arguments in the case. A decision is expected next month, reports the Associated Press. If the Court upholds the initial terrorism charges, it could usher in a new era of anti-gang prosecution. If they side with the appeals court, the line marking what is terrorism becomes even more vague.

The deciding issue will be where that line lands. Obviously, the attacks that inspired the law, 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, would qualify. But what about the D.C. sniper, John Allen Muhammad? He was prosecuted under a similar law in Virginia. What about James Holmes? Edgar Morales? Wade Michael Page?

Each defendant falls into a very different category. James Holmes' attack at the Century Theater in Aurora seemed to target a random group of people. Wade Michael Page attacked a specific ethnic and religious group. Both are mass murderers, but only one seemed to be trying to intimidate the public or a subset of the public.

As for Edgar Morales, the fatal shooting happened when his gang crashed a christening celebration. According to the New York Times, St. James Boys robbed restaurant patrons, fired shots into crowds, beat and harassed strangers, and slashed rivals with knives. They did not seek to make money by selling drugs or pimping prostitutes. They simply sought power. They only tormented those identifiable as Mexicans.

The New York statute does not define "intimidate or coerce a civilian population." The appeals court relied on definitions from similar statutes, the legislative history and debate surrounding the New York statute, and the language of the statutes that preceded and inspired the New York law. Each of these three sources is persuasive but not definitive. The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, will be free to consider these sources but are not bound by them, as they would be by a statute with defined language.

Related Resources: