On Tuesday, the New York State Court of Appeals overturned the 2007 conviction of Edgar Morales, a Bronx gang member on state terrorism charges. Morales was prosecuted over a 2002 shooting at a church, killing a 10-year-old girl and paralyzing another person.
The Bronx district attorney applied the state’s anti-terrorism statutes to the case on the premise that the gang of Morales, the St. James Boys met the definition of “terror” as the gang was engaged in intimidating a particular community, the Mexican-Americans, who lived around St. James Park.
Section 490.25 of the Penal Law includes a clause that in New York a person is guilty of terrorism when he commits a violent felony or a class A felony with the “intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.”
However, the unanimous decision of the appellate court was that stretching the interpretation of terrorism to cover gang crime would allow prosecutors to “invoke the specter of ‘terrorism’ every time a Blood assaults a Crip or an organized crime family orchestrates the murder of a rival syndicate’s soldier.”
Morales happened to be the first person charged and convicted under the anti-terrorism law of New York State, which was passed after 9/11 attacks. Morales was also convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder in addition to terrorism charges. He received a sentence of 40 years in prison.
Upon appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department had vacated the terrorism convictions but had upheld other parts of the sentence. The First Department also rejected arguments that Morales had been denied a fair trial.
The Court of Appeals however overturned the entire conviction holding, “Without the aura of terrorism looming over the case, the activities of (Morales’s) associates in other contexts would have been largely, if not entirely, inadmissible.”
In overturning the conviction, the Court of Appeals also observed “the concept of terrorism has a unique meaning and its implications risk being trivialized if the terminology is applied loosely in situations that do not match our collective understanding of what constitutes a terrorist act.”