Feds won’t seek death penalty in case against gang inside Calif. prisons

By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federal prosecutors overseeing a sprawling racketeering indictment against members of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang accused of orchestrating murders, drug deals and other crimes from inside California prisons revealed Monday that they will not seek the death penalty in the case.

The one-sentence notification came in a filing Monday morning in Sacramento federal court after months of legal wrangling over when prosecutors would reveal their intentions.

“The United States provides notice that it will not seek the death penalty in this case against defendants Ronald Yandell, William Sylvester, Pat Brady, Jason Corbett and Brant Daniel,” the notice from Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jason Hitt, Ross Pearson and David Spencer said.

The decision comes after the matter was sent to Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and precedes a hearing in the case that is set for Wednesday.

Trial in the case is scheduled to begin Feb. 26, and a notice that the government was seeking a death penalty prosecution likely would have pushed the trial date back.

“The Brant Daniel defense team is pleased the government announced that it is not seeking the death penalty against any of the five death-eligible defendants,” said John Balazs, an attorney for Daniel, who, as an Aryan Brotherhood member since 2013, is accused in the October 2016 slaying of Salinas Valley State Prison inmate Zachary Scott.

“The death penalty is barbaric, often discriminatorily applied, risks executing innocent persons, and has been abolished in most countries worldwide. It has no place in our U.S. legal system. We look forward to defending against the charges at a trial in February 2024.”

Balazs said the decision would have come after the matter was referred to the Justice Department’s Capital Case Section.

“It would have had to come from the capital case committee in D.C.,” he said. “They are the ones that make an authorization decision and under the current protocol they are allowed to make a decision of no death penalty without going to the attorney general.

”If there’s a recommendation for the death penalty then the AG has to sign off, so it’s possible they went to the AG with a recommendation and the AG said no. But it’s more likely it would be that the capital case committee decided not to seek the death penalty and notified (U.S. Attorney Phil) Talbert.”

The case stems from a 2019 indictment of Aryan Brotherhood members and leaders, and a subsequent December 2022 murder indictment that made the five defendants eligible for the death penalty.

“This superseding indictment strikes at the heart of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang with five defendants now facing murder charges that carry with them the possibility of the death penalty,” Talbert said in a statement at the time. “This white supremacist gang plagues our communities inside and outside prison and are responsible for some of the most brutal crimes committed within prison walls.

“We will continue to use every law enforcement tool to protect the communities impacted by this gang’s violence and criminal activities.”

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©2023 The Sacramento Bee.
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