Alex Sanchez had a second bail hearing on Wednesday afternoon. He did not get bail. Nor was he denied it.
Alex, if you’ll remember, is the former MS-13 gang member turned highly honored gang intervention leader and head of the well-regarded nonprofit, Homies Unidos. A month ago, Sanchez was named in a federal racketeering indictment and accused of plotting the murder of a rival gang member. The case alleges Sanchez was leading a double life: while a good guy by day, by night he was the premier shot caller—AKA leader—of a particularly violent clique of MS-13.
At the last bail hearing held on June 30, 110 people wrote letters of support—including city leaders and a wide array of clergy. Friends and colleagues put up $1.2 million in surities against any bail. To sweeten the deal, Tom Hayden put up his house toward the hoped for bond. Sanchez was denied bail anyway.
Sanchez’s attorney appealed the bail decision, and Wednesday’s hearing was the result. But rather than settle the matter, U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real decided to continue the bail issue until August 17, nearly a month from now.
On the surface this might sound like just another case of justice delayed.
But, there is a lot more to this story.
BAIL HEARING, ROUND DEUX
On Wednesday things were unusually quiet around LA’s courthouses since that was the day that most courts in the state were on budget-driven furlough. However, the federal court on Spring Street was still doing a thriving business—simply because, being federal, its cash flow was not restricted by the mammoth budgetary sinkhole into which California seems to be rapidly disappearing.
The previous June 30 hearing was held in front of a nervous-seeming U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia G. Rosenberg who gave the discomforting impressing that she looked only to the prosecutor for her cues.
Judge Manuel Real was quite another breed of jurist. A white-haired man of 85 who was appointed to the bench in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson, Manuel Real is a controversial figure who once threatened to throw then Attorney General Dan Lungren into jail for contempt and used to be known for telling lawyers “This isn’t Burger King. We don’t do it your way here.” More recently and most notoriously, Real was censured and nearly subjected to impeachment proceedings for his unorthodox handling of a 2006 bankruptcy case.
Yet while quirky, he was reputed to be smart and was obviously extremely experienced. And unlike the magistrate, U.S. District Judge Real made it clear from the beginning that he and no one else was the boss of his courtroom. He was the precider.
Real first called Alex’s defense attorney, Kerry Bensinger, who once again recited all the support that Alex Sanchez had received. There were presently more than 140 letters written to testify to Alex’s character, said Bensinger. And the amount of properties and surities that had been put up by friends in Sanchez’s behalf, now totaled $2.5 million.
Not only were all these friends willing risk their own property and money for Alex, Bensinger said, the defense proposed that, if granted bail, all Alex’s calls and visitors could be completely monitored, and Alex himself would willingly wear any kind of electronic monitoring device.
Bensinger also listed all the reasons why Sanchez was not a flight risk or a danger. All his family is here, and he could not return to El Salvador without risking almost certain death. This was why he fought for asylum in 2000 and, in 2002 was granted asylum by an INS judge in a nearly unprecedented ruling. In fact, said Bensinger, for the nearly two year duration of the asylum case, Sanchez was out on bail, “and he made every court date and didn’t flee then. And he won’t flee now.”
Neither was Sanchez the dangerous man that the government was portraying him to be, said Bensinger. His previous offenses were long in the past, and a part of the time when he was an admitted gang member. And they had been legally expunged anyway. The only felony that remained on his record was from way back in 1991, when he led a different kind of life. Even that offense had been lightweight enough that Sanchez received only probation, and no jail time.
When Bensinger finished, Judge Real fixed the attorney with a hawk-like stare. “The defendant is charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” Real said, “and many of these murders occurred when Sanchez was supposedly helping young men get out of gangs. What about that?”
“Murders plural?” muttered the crowd in the courtroom. Although the long RICO indictment in which Sanchez was named listed many murders and murder plots, Sanchez was solely (allegedly) involved in the 2006 conspiracy to murder Walter Lacinos, an MS-13 gang member who was indeed subsequently killed in El Salvador.
Nevertheless, the judge read off a horrifying string of homicides and homicide plots, including the alleged plot against LAPD detective Frank Flores, that were linked to other MS-13 gang members.
Since it had never previously been suggested that Sanchez had any part in these homicides or murder plots, even by the government’s highly zealous prosecutor, the crowd of Sanchez supporters looked confused and fearful as the potentially broad and irrational use of the RICO Act began to dawn on them. Passed in 1970 as a way to indict previously untouchable mafia kingpins, RICO is a good tool that may also be used as a bludgeon in that it allows prosecutors to employ the vague and flexible charge of “racketeering” to tie more ordinary defendants like Sanchez to crimes and people with which they have no direct causal involvement whatsoever.
Hearing the judge’s interpretation of the charges in the indictment, one defense attorney friend of Sanchez shook her head unhappily.
Even Bensinger appeared slightly thrown for a loop. “Mr. Sanchez is only accused of one predicate act, which is the 2006 conspiracy to murder Walter Lacinos,” he said.
“Are you telling me these murders aren’t real?” the judge all but shouted.
“Your honor, they’re real murdersâ€¦” Bensinger tried to counter, “but Mr. Sanchez isn’tâ€¦..”
“This is like a bad episode of Boston Legal,” whispered an observer. “Any minute now, this judge is going to say, â€˜No more jibberjabber in my courtroom!.’”
There was more back and forth between judge and defense attorney, all of it suggesting very rough legal times ahead for Alex Sanchez.
But the hearing was not over. Not at all.
SHOW ME THE TAPES!
Next up was Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Carpenter. The bail conditions that Bensinger suggested were “wholly inadequate,” Carpenter said. Electronic monitoring would not prevent flight, plus it would be much too labor intensive for law enforcement to manage.
More importantly, she said, Sanchez was a way too dangerous a guy to be allowed out on bail, since he could pick up the phone and order people’s deaths and the government had the wiretaps to prove it.
Whereas the magistrate had solemnly taken Carpenter’s word on any and all points,,Judge Real perked up at the mention of the prosecution’s wiretaps, which were rumored to be at the center of the case against Sanchez.
“I want to hear the tapes,” he said almost as a non sequitur .
Carpenter looked startled. “I can get you the transcripts. But they’re very, very long.”
“No, I want to hear the tapes,” Real repeated.
“They’re in Spanish.” Carpenter said.
The judge converted his hawk gaze to a laser stare which he focused on Carpenter.
“I speak Spanish,” he said.
After another pause. “Are the tapes available here in the courthouse?”
No, they were not.
“Well, where are they?”
Carpenter had a quick confab with a woman colleague sitting next to her at prosecutor’s table.
“They’re at the FBI office in Westwood.”
The judge persisted. “Okay, why don’t we recess until 4 p.m. [it was then around 2 p.m.] and we can listen to the tapes when we come back. We’ll reconvene at 4 p.m.”
Well, hedged Carpenter, only some of the tapes were in Westwood. “Some are at the FBI facility in Northridge.”
After that, the prosecutor stopped just short of saying that the dog ate the freaking tapes.
(For the record, according to Google Maps, Northridge and Westwood are 32 minutes and 22 minutes away from the courthouse, respectively. )
As audience members madly speculated as to why Carpenter was so resistant to turning over the wiretap tapes, an increasingly irritated Real persisted. Could everyone reconvene on Thursday or Friday?
This time it was Bensinger who raised his hand. “Your honor, I’m having knee surgery tomorrowâ€¦”
“Alright, August 17, ” said Real, and no one had the nerve to raise an objection.
For a few additional minutes the judge challenged both Carpenter and Bensinger on various other points in their presentations—like the two 1999 snapshots of Sanchez posing outside an anti-gang conference with some alleged MS-13 gang members, that the prosecutor had suggested proved Sanchez was actively gang involved.
“What is it you are claiming the photos you gave me have to do with the indictment?” Real demanded. Carpenter attempted several answers, but the judge looked unconvinced.
By 3 pm the hearing was adjourned.
The spectators filed silently out of the second floor courtroom and into the hallway where most could be seen frantically noting the date of August 17 in their respective PDAs and datebooks.
No one wanted to miss next month’s hearing and the playing of those tapes—myself very much included.
Finally the crowd headed downstairs to where the local TV news crews waited for the post-hearing photo ops that soon began to unfold in the intense July sunshine.
NOTE: Pictured in the top photo are Oscar Sanchez, Alex Sanchez’s brother and actor/producer Troy Garity, who is a Homies Unidos board member, Tom Hayden’s son, and one of Wednesday’s spokespeople for Sanchez.