Half of the 18 suspected gang members and associates facing federal charges in connection with a 2016 homicide in Danville could potentially face the death penalty if convicted, Virginia’s U.S. Attorney’s office said.
Before a federal death penalty can be pursued, experts explained, the state’s U.S. Attorney’s Office must recommend it to a committee within the Department of Justice in the District of Columbia. There, defense attorneys argue against it, and the punishment is either authorized or denied.
The nine defendants were indicted June 11 on charges of federal racketeering and murder across two separate federal cases. Indictments show those cases are based on alleged membership in two criminal street gangs — the Rollin 60s and the MILLAs. They, along with nine more defendants facing lesser charges, currently have their preliminary hearings moving through the U.S. District Court in Roanoke. The location of the trials has not been set.
Each of those defendants have retained attorneys qualified to handle charges that carry the death penalty as a maximum punishment, according to court documents.
Trials have not been scheduled for either case, according to the Virginia U.S. Attorney’s office. Death penalty cases often require a great deal of time and money to adjudicate, said Jody Madeira, professor of law at Indiana University Bloomington.
“It usually can be like six months before these things even go to trial,” she said.
Because murder alone is not a capital offense, federal death penalties hinge on exclusively-federal powers and authorities like the Interstate Commerce Clause in conjunction with the murder charge, which Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, said could be used against the nine indicted.
“The underlying power to criminalize a continuing criminal enterprise is the interstate commerce clause,” he said in a phone interview. “[Prosecutors] first need whatever that federal interest is.”
Because each of the nine is charged with federal racketeering and with murder, Dunham said, the government could use the clause to pursue capital punishment.
Charges in the two separate cases range from murder to accessory to a crime and are connected to the fatal shooting of Christopher Lamont Motley and attempted murder of Justion Wilson in the Southwyck Apartment complex on North Hills Court on Aug. 20, 2016. A federal official has said the suspects were involved in orchestrating a shootout where Motley, an innocent bystander, was caught in the crossfire.
The first defendant in the MILLAs case where court documents mentioned the death penalty is Montez Lamar Allen, on June 17, who is charged with murder in the aid of racketeering, use of a firearm during a violent crime and other felony counts.
The first defendant in the Rollin 60s case where court documents mentioned the death penalty is Kanas Lamont’e Trent, on June 20, who is charged with murder in the aid of racketeering, attempted murder, use of a firearm during a violent crime and other felony counts.
“This prosecution is certainly the largest and most significant prosecution of federal, organized criminal activity our office has prosecuted in at least a decade,” said Brian McGinn of the Virginia U.S. Attorney’s Office in an email.
McGinn said the prosecution is part of Project Safe Neighborhood — a public safety initiative Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived in late 2017 to “target emerging or chronic crime problems facing the country,” according to the Department of Justice’s website.
President Donald Trump has long supported the death penalty, though the number of federal death penalties pursued since he took office has been relatively low, Dunham said.
The last person to be executed on federal charges was Louis Jones Jr., a U.S. soldier convicted of kidnapping and raping another U.S. soldier, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. He was executed in March 2003.
There are currently seven people convicted of committed crimes in Virginia on federal death row. Most federal inmates are imprisoned in Terre Haute, Indiana.
James Whitlow reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 791-7983.