Valuable revelations are often found in unlikely places. Such is the case with a fascinating ruling released last week by the New York Court of Appeals, that state's highest court, in the criminal case of People v. Edgar Morales. The facts of the case are quite simple, but the implications of the ruling are profound.
The defendant, Morales, was a member of a Bronx street gang known as the "St. James Boys" (SJB). In August, 2002, Morales and fellow gang members went to a party, saw someone from a rival gang which they believed responsible for a friend's death, and told him to leave. When he refused, they planned to attack him after the party. When the party ended, Morales shot at the rival gang member and his cohorts, severely wounding one of them but also accidentally shooting and killing a 10-year-old girl who was a bystander.
Prosecutors were not content to charge Morales with murder and related crimes. Instead, they charged him with crimes of "terrorism" under an anti-terrorism law that was enacted in New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. When enacting the law, the legislature stated that it is designed to ensure that terrorists "are prosecuted and punished in state courts with appropriate severity". Under the law, this newly created "terrorism" crime is committed whenever one acts with the "intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population", but the law contains no definition of that term.
At trial, Morales vehemently argued that what he was accused of doing could not possibly be "terrorism", but the prosecutors insisted - and the trial court agreed - that his violence "furthered the [gang]'s objective to intimidate or coerce other Mexican-American gangs in the Bronx and, as a result of those activities, the [gang] intended to intimidate and coerce the entire Mexican-American community." The jury found him guilty on all counts, including the "terrorism" charges, and the Court of Appeals set out to determine whether the terrorism charges were validly applied to this violence.