Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, June 12, 2001


Page 3


Crips Neighborhood ‘Subsets’ Are Single ‘Street Gang,’ Appeals Court Rules


By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


The various neighborhood groups or “subsets” who make up the Crips constitute a single “criminal street gang” as defined by the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.

Div. Three Friday upheld findings that four men convicted of robbery in Orange Superior Court. Robert Charles Tillett, Ron Simmons, Edwin Kizzee, and Tramaine Howard Cooper committed the crime for the benefit of the Crips.

The enhancements were imposed under the special gang-related provisions of the “10-20-Life” law, and the total sentences varied from 25 years for Tillett to 60 years to life for Cooper, who had three prior convictions for violent or serious felonies.  

The panel dealt prosecutors a setback, however, by reversing the enhancements due to instructional error and sent the case back for resentencing.

The four were convicted of robbing a jewelry store at gunpoint. About $150,000 in jewelry was taken from the display cases, and another $10,000 in cash and jewelry was taken from the persons of the owner and another victim.

One of the victims, a visiting jewelry dealer, borrowed the owner’s gun and pursued the robbers, two of whom fired at him.

The four defendants were apprehended as they allegedly attempted to hide the proceeds of the robbery, along with the guns. Two of them were tied to the robbery by fingerprints, and all four were identified by eyewitnesses.

Searches of the defendants’ residences produced photographs and writings indicating gang membership. A police detective, testifying as an expert, explained that the defendants belonged to different subsets of the Crips gang.

While there are occasional hostilities among these neighborhood groups, Los Angeles Police Dept. Detective Roger Magnuson explained, they are frequently allied, particularly when it comes to committing crimes to further the aims of the gang.

The fact that the four defendants were longtime Crips, and that they had gotten together outside their home neighborhoods to commit robberies, indicated that the proceeds of the crimes were intended to benefit the gang.

Prosecutors also presented evidence of a statement given by one of the defendants to the police. Presiding Justice David Sills, writing for the appellate panel, explained:

“Simmons was found to have a gold watch in his rear pocket.  When the searching officer looked at it, expecting to find a tag from the jewelry store still attached, he expressed his surprise that it was missing.  Simmons turned to him and said, ‘Do you think I’m a fool?  I ate it.’  Alas, the truth of Simmons’s statement is self-evident.”

Jurors convicted all four defendants of the robbery, and convicted Kizzee and Simmons of an earlier jewelry store robbery. Enhancement allegations that the four were principals in a robbery committed for the benefit of a street gang, in which a participant personally discharged a firearm, were found true.

The 10-20-Life law, passed in 1997, provides a mandatory enhancement—10 years if the defendant merely displays a firearm, 20 years if he or she intentionally discharges one, and 25 years to life for causing great bodily injury—when a gun is used in the commission of one of the enumerated felonies, which include murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping as well as attempts to commit those crimes.

The law generally applies only to one who personally displays or discharges a gun. But a unique provision, found in Penal Code Sec. 12022.53(e), decrees that if the crime is committed in order to further the aims of a criminal street gang, as defined by the STEP Act, all principals are subject to the enhanced penalties.

On appeal, the defense attorneys argued that the gang-related allegations were supported by insufficient evidence. The testimony, they said, showed that the defendants belonged to groups whose activities were unrelated to each other.

Sills disagreed. He cited Magnuson’s testimony that all of the defendants were Crips and were known to use the “c” hand signal common to the larger gang, and that members of different Crips subsets often commit crimes together, whereas no Crips member would commit crimes with a non-Crip.

Sills went on to conclude that there was sufficient evidence to prove that the Crips are a criminal street gang under the STEP Act, that is, an organization whose members have engaged in a “pattern” of felonies involving theft, guns, violence, or drug dealing.

To constitute a pattern, such crimes must have been committed on two different occasions, no more than three years apart, or by two or more members on a single occasion.

There was enough evidence, based on the current case alone, to establish that the Crips qualified under the statute, Sills said, not to mention other evidence that Crips had been committed of qualifying crimes.

Sills went on to conclude that Orange Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno didn’t abuse his discretion by trying the two robberies together. He cited the similarities between the two crimes;  that fact that two of the defendants were charged in both robberies, while some evidence linked Cooper to the first robbery as well, even though he wasn’t charged with it; and the similarity in the defenses.

But the justice erred, Sills said, in failing to instruct jurors that the prosecution had to prove which defendant fired a gun while fleeing the robbery. The enhancements were thus ordered stricken and the case sent back to the trial judge to restructure the sentences.

Defense attorneys on appeal, all court-appointed,  were Carl Fabian for Tillett, Corinne S. Shulman for Simmons, Terrence Verson Scott for Kizzee, and Stuart A. Skelton for Cooper. The state was represented by Deputies Attorney General Esteban Hernandez and Maxine P. Cutler.

The case is People v. Tillett, 01 S.O.S. 2768.


Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company