LOS ANGELES – In a decision that could have wide-ranging implications on the U.S. court system, a federal judge ruled Thursday that two Aryan Brotherhood leaders convicted of murder and eligible for the death penalty have the right to confront their accusers during their upcoming sentencing hearing.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Oliver O. Carter prevents the government from making its case for the execution of Barry “The Baron” Mills and Tyler “The Hulk” Bingham purely on documents, transcripts and third-person accounts by prison officials.
Although the ruling is not precedent since it did not originate with an appellate court, lawyers said it could be used as persuasive evidence in other capital cases on both the state and federal level.
“Although it’s not a binding precedent, it’s another arrow in the quiver,” said Mills’ attorney Dean Steward.
The 35-page ruling, issued by the judge in Santa Ana, came two days after a hearing in which he expressed concern about the impact his decision might have on interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Crawford vs. Washington, which involves the right of defendants to confront accusers.
On Thursday, the judge found the 2004 Supreme Court decision does extend to sentencing hearings in federal death penalty cases.
“Because the death penalty is uniquely different in its finality and severity, increased scrutiny is required at every step of the capital process to ensure that death is the appropriate penalty,” Carter wrote.
He said his ruling was “in line with maturing federal death penalty jurisprudence and its recognition of the need for increased reliability in capital sentencing.”
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said he had not yet read the ruling and could not comment. He had said previously the government’s case during sentencing would be built largely on documentary evidence.
Mills and Bingham, two kingpins of the white supremacist prison gang, were convicted of murder, conspiracy and racketeering charges in crimes that go back as far as 30 years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Wolfe argued at a Tuesday hearing that it would be difficult to find witnesses to testify. In an effort to document one alleged crime, Wolfe said he found one witness dead and two others missing.
However, the judge noted the government chose “to rely on proof of incidents that occurred over 30 years ago” and pointed to prosecutors seeking to use testimony of a dead witness who said Mills ordered him to murder another inmate in 1980.
“This is precisely the type of uncross-examined accusatory testimony that the Sixth Amendment protects against,” he said, noting it would be inadmissible even without the Crawford decision.
The judge said the government’s case will not be devastated by his ruling because much of its documentary evidence can be presented to the jury.
The sentencing phase of the trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 28.
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