By Daniel Wiessner
ALBANY, N.Y., Dec 11 (Reuters) - A New York state
anti-terrorism law enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks
cannot be used to prosecute a street gang member convicted of
shooting a 10-year-old girl and paralyzing a rival gang member,
the Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.
The court ordered a new trial for Edgar Morales, a member of
the Bronx-based St. James Boys gang, who was sentenced to life
for his involvement in the 2002 shootings. Morales, 30, is the
only gang member to have been prosecuted under New York's
anti-terror law, his lawyer said.
Prosecutors had accused Morales and his gang of terrorizing
the Mexican-American community in their Bronx neighborhood. They
relied on a provision of a 2001 anti-terrorism law passed six
days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Under Section 490.25 of the Penal Law, a person is guilty of
terrorism when he commits a specified class A or violent felony
with the "intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population"
or influence government policy. Morales was charged with
terrorism, on the theory that he had sought to intimidate the
community and rival gangs.
The Court of Appeals found that state lawmakers never
intended to extend the definition of terrorism to traditional
"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," Judge
Victoria Graffeo wrote for the court.
According to the court, Morales and several fellow gang
members in 2002 attended a christening party in the Bronx, where
members of a rival gang were present. A brawl ensued, the court
said, during which Morales shot and killed the 10-year-old girl
and paralyzed an adversary.
Morales was charged under the terrorism statute with
manslaughter, attempted murder and weapon possession. He also
was charged with conspiracy.
During trial, Morales moved to dismiss the terrorism
charges, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support
them. Acting Supreme Court Justice Michael Gross in the Bronx
denied the motion.
Morales was convicted of manslaughter, attempted murder,
weapon possession and conspiracy and sentenced to 40 years to
life. Under the conviction, the first three crimes were
considered acts of terrorism, which carry steeper penalties.
The Appellate Division, First Department, in 2010 found that
Morales had engaged only in gang-related street crimes and
vacated the terrorism convictions. The court rejected Morales's
argument that he had been denied a fair trial.
The Court of Appeals on Tuesday went further, finding that
the terrorism charges had a "spillover effect" on the entire
trial because they allowed the prosecution to admit evidence of
a number of uncharged crimes allegedly committed by Morales and
"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," Graffeo
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judges Carmen Ciparick,
Eugene Pigott, Susan Read and Robert Smith concurred.
Morales's attorney, Catherine Amirfar, said the decision was
"a tremendous victory."
The court "determined that the result was unjust and the
Bronx DA's approach here was inconsistent with the collective
understanding of terrorism," she said.
A spokesman for Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said
his office will retry Morales without the terrorism charges.
"We knew the applicability of the terrorism statute was a
novel legal issue, and that the statute would not apply to most
street crimes," Steven Reed said.
The case is the People v. Edgar Morales, New York State
Court of Appeals, No. 186.
For Morales: Catherine Amirfar of Debevoise & Plimpton.
For the prosecution: Bronx Assistant District Attorney Peter
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