Jury deliberates in Latin Kings racketeering trial

by Jordan Green

Ajury of 12 began deliberations in earnest as the new week began in the federal racketeering trial in Winston-Salem of five North Carolina Latin Kings and an associate.

Supporters held banners outside the federal building denouncing the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and calling for the defendants’ freedom on Monday as the jurors set about the task of determining whether the US government has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Jorge Cornell and five other defendants are guilty of engaging in racketeering acts. A verdict had not been reached when court resumed at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

The six defendants each face 20 years in prison if convicted, and Cornell, the undisputed leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings, could face life if, in addition to racketeering, he is found guilty of aiding and abetting an assault with a dangerous weapon or carrying a shotgun in relation to the shooting of a construction worker at Maplewood Apartments in Greensboro in April 2008.

“Given the length of the trial your time deliberating is not out of the ordinary,” Beaty told the jurors on Monday, before excusing them at about 5:15 p.m.

The jurors had requested the opportunity to review several pieces of evidence, including a video documenting Cornell’s arrest for obstructing a law enforcement officer while campaigning for city council in 2009, financial information related to a house on Kirkman Street that burned down and had been owned by the grandmother of a Latin King, rosters, mug shots and envelopes from correspondence between defendants Randolph Kilfoil and Russell Kilfoil.

The prosecution and six courtappointed lawyers for the defendants made final arguments on Nov. 16, closing a week that saw the defense put on a lightning-fast case, calling only nine witnesses compared to the 100-plus former Latin Kings, law enforcement officers, experts and civilian witnesses who took the stand for the government.

Lee-Dixon’s argument centered on Cornell’s alleged role in a string of offenses that the government characteriz number of defendants committed a variety of crimes,” he said. “But that’s not what you’re being asked to decide…. Just because Latin Kings committed crimes does not mean that the Latin Kings were a criminal enterprise. They have to connect the crimes to the enterprise. A lot of it might have been freelance work — people who were Latin Kings at one time who decided to commit a crime for personal purposes.”

The jurors’ interest in evidence pertaining to Cornell’s arrest during his 2009 Greensboro City Council campaign goes to the structure of the alleged racketeering enterprise. The government has built layer upon layer of evidence about the Latin Kings’ preference for the colors gold and black, the group’s use of hand signs, the greeting “amor de rey,” various stages of initiation leading to full membership, meetes as racketeering acts, and emphasized his leadership role.

“It’s an inference you can make that a Latin King would keep abreast of what’s going on, including criminal activities from place to place,” she said. “One thing you can rely on is that when something happens, Jorge Cornell calls in his reinforcements. With the Maplewood incident, he’s calling in people from Durham. When [girlfriend] Michelle’s car was shot, he wants people to bring weapons.

“It was an illegal structure with a common purpose of retaliating against rivals and maintaining discipline within the organization,” she added. “This is an enterprise that was taking advantage of innocent civilians for its own benefit.”

Michael Patrick, Cornell’s courtappointed lawyer, patiently walked the jurors through the finer points of law under RICO.

“You may have determined that a ings, rules, dues and discipline.

Eric Ginsburg had been one of Cornell’s campaign managers at the time of the 2009 arrest. He now works as a reporter for YES! Weekly. He testified last week that he was at an outdoor music festival to meet Cornell and other Latin Kings to hand out fliers. He said he spotted Latin Kings Samuel Velasquez and Wesley Williams, along with Cornell’s two daughters. He waved at them, and they waved back. Ginsburg testified that Velasquez and Williams did not use the Latin Kings gang signs and that he did not see anyone who looked like a member of another gang in the crowd, which was predominantly white and somewhat aging.

“After I waved at them, the police started walking towards them,” Ginsburg testified. “I had a camera with video. My friend had a cell phone that could take video. We both filmed the incident and walked towards where Wesley Williams and Samuel Velasquez were with Cornell. Mr. Cornell got there before me.”

Lee-Dixon suggested jurors should trust the account of Officer Roman Watkins, a member of the gang enforcement unit, over Ginsburg’s testimony.

“Despite the testimony you heard, the video speaks for itself,” Lee-Dixon said. “You heard from Officer Watkins that he saw members of the Latin Kings throwing gang signs and that there were Bloods in the confines of that festival. Eric Ginsburg, who said he was intent on hearing everything, said he didn’t hear ‘amor de rey.’” The jurors’ interest in the financial statements regarding the Kirkman Street house references one of the alleged racketeering acts — arson, as the government would have it.

Patrick assailed testimony from two cooperating witnesses — defendants who pleaded guilty and agreed to help the government make its case. Richard Robinson and Charles Moore testified that Wesley Williams burned his grandmother’s vacant house, and that Cornell called Williams’ family in New Jersey and threatened them if they didn’t hand over a portion of the insurance proceeds. The defense subpoenaed testimony from Helen Carlene Buscemi, Williams’ grandmother.

“Mr. Moore claimed that Mr. Cornell met Carlene Buscemi and asked her for some of the money,” Patrick told the jurors. “I think you can judge her credibility. She flat out said she was never threatened by Jorge Cornell. I think she was pretty emphatic that she wouldn’t have given Jorge any money.”

Lee-Dixon argued, in contrast: “You heard about a phone call from Jorge Cornell saying he wanted some of that money or he would call the police. I would submit to you that based on what you heard from the cooperators, there was extortion.”

Before the jury went into deliberation on Nov. 16, Judge Beaty told them that the testimony of cooperating defendants must be examined with greater caution than that of ordinary witnesses because of the possibility that cooperators will falsify their testimony to try to help the government make its case in hopes of getting their time reduced.

In keeping with the defense’s contention that the North Carolina Latin Kings were not a criminal racketeering organization, lawyers for the individual defendants made unique arguments tailored to the specific circumstances of their respective clients.

Brian Aus, the court-appointed lawyer for Russell Kilfoil, cast doubt on the credibility of Jose Lugo, an informant also known as King Hova, who received $14,000 in payment for his services from the government.

“It was Hova, not Russell Kilfoil, who showed them how to make a better firebomb,” Aus said. “Why did he do it? Trying to sell audio to the government. Those bottles never got into the car because Russell Kilfoil told him it wasn’t a good idea.”

Christopher Shella, the court-appointed lawyer for Randolph Kilfoil, told members of the jury that the government had not presented any evidence that his client wore gold and black clothing, bears Latin Kings tattoos or ever uttered the phrase “amor de rey.”

The jury has indicated an interest in that aspect of the case, having requested the opportunity to review a roster of incarcerated Latin Kings members that was seized from Russell Kilfoil’s apartment. Randolph Kilfoil has been serving a federal sentence for possession of a firearm since 2010.

Referencing the roster of incarcerated Latin Kings members, Shella said, “My client is not there.”

Mark Edwards, Velasquez’s courtappointed lawyer, freely acknowledged that his client was a Latin King, but ridiculed the organization to undermine the government’s case against the defendants.

“Apparently, all you had to do to be a Latin King was have a pulse and wear gold and black T-shirts,” Edwards said. “They would recruit anybody. And if you stuck around a couple months, you could have a crown position. If came to them with a ‘terminate on sight,’ no problem. It’s kind of like 6-year-old teeball: Everybody gets an award at the end of the season.”

Helen Parsonage, the court-appointed lawyer for Irvin Velasquez, built her argument around consistent testimony by cooperators that her client had not been around Jorge Cornell’s Latin Kings before or after 2008.

“You don’t have two criminal acts, and you don’t have any evidence that my client was anywhere near these crimes,” she said. “There was no Irvin, and therefore not guilty.”

Curtis Holmes, the court-appointed lawyer for Ernesto Wilson, noted that the government acknowledges his client was never a Latin King. Grainy video showing a 2007 robbery of a dry-cleaning business is insufficient evidence to support a conviction, he argued, adding that the testimony of cooperators can’t be trusted.

“You have spent the last month or so getting a glimpse of multiple tragedies in the lives of people who were poor,” Holmes said. “There’s a very real risk that the harm and sadness continue if you allow the government to convict someone of being a Latin King when they’re not.”

Lee-Dixon’s appeal to the jury was succinct.

“We ask you to tell Mr. Cornell and the other defendants that their reign is over as Latin Kings in North Carolina,” she said.