The New York Criminal Law Blog

Bronx D.A.'s Novel Legal Strategy Fails; Gang Crime Isn't Terrorism

The highest court has spoken, and for Edgar Morales, an admitted gang member and alleged murderer, it spoke well. His conviction for the murder of a 10-year-old girl and for charges of terrorism were overturned by New York’s highest court - the Court of Appeals, reports The New York Times. In all likelihood, he’ll be retried on the murder charge, but at least for now, he is once again innocent until proven guilty.

How does gang crime and the murder of a child become terrorism? As we discussed before, Morales was one of the St. James Boys, a neighborhood gang that prosecutors argued were more interested in obtaining power than wealth. They were alleged to be behind a number of heinous crimes, including shooting into crowds, slashing rivals with knives, robbing restaurant patrons, and in the case of their youngest victim - having a shootout at a christening.

The gang reportedly only attacked Mexican-Americans. They sought notoriety, fear, and power. They did not engage in typical gang crime, such as selling drugs or pimping prostitutes. They simply terrorized an ethnic group in the West Bronx until a stray bullet killed a child.

New York's anti-terrorism law, passed after 9/11, makes it a crime to commit violent acts "with intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." At least according to the exact words of the statute, it seems to fit. The trial court certainly thought so, as did the prosecutors. A mid-level appeals court disagreed earlier this year, but upheld the murder conviction.

The Court of Appeals took it one step further, and reversed everything. Morales argued that the improperly brought terrorism charges tainted his right to a fair trial on the murder charges, as they allowed the introduction of evidence of other crimes that would otherwise be inadmissible. The six judges unanimously agreed.

As a general rule, evidence of past crimes is not admissible to show that the defendant committed the present offense. For example, prior assault convictions typically wouldn't be admissible in a present-day murder trial, though some exceptions do exist.

As for the terrorism question, the court stated, "the concept of terrorism has a unique meaning and its implications risk being trivialized if the terminology is applied loosely in situations that do not match our collective understanding of what constitutes a terrorist act."

When interpreting a written law, the courts take a few different approaches. Some judges argue that only the plain text of the law should be considered. Others look to arguments and notes in the legislature during debate over the law. This is done to attempt to glean the drafters' intent for the statute.

The latter seems to be the approach taken by the court. While the text of the law could apply to the St. James Boys, the drafters apparently meant something very different when they wrote the law. While this was certainly an admirable and creative approach by the prosecutor, and the crime seems to fit the text, it didn't fit the intent.

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