By Caroline Daniel

In United States v. Cornell, a published opinion released yesterday (March 16), the Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions of three members of the Greensboro tribe of the Latin Kings.

Defendants Assert Multiple Errors by Prosecution

Co-defendants Jorge Cornell (a.k.a King Jay), Ernesto Wilson (a.k.a. King Yayo), and Russell Kilfoil (a.k.a. King Peaceful) (collectively “Defendants”) were charged with and convicted of conspiracy to violate the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”).  18 U.S.C. § 1962.  Defendants made several claims of error in their appeal, mainly arguing that the district court improperly instructed the jury and that the prosecution lacked sufficient evidence to convict them of violating RICO.

Kings’ Conspiracy in Greensboro

Centered in Chicago and New York City, the Latin Kings is a gang with localized branches or “tribes” throughout the country.  The Fourth Circuit noted that “central to the organization is a culture of violence” as well as the “various illegal activities its members undertake.”

Defendants were key leaders in the Greensboro tribe and were charged (along with other gang members not included in this appeal) with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d) by “knowingly and intentionally conspir[ing] to conduct and participate, directly and indirectly, in the conduct of the affairs of [a criminal] enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity.”  During their trial, the prosecution presented evidence of the defendants’ conspiracy to commit murder, armed robbery, and fraud, among other illegal activities.  The defendants were individually found guilty: Cornell was sentenced to 336 months; Wilson was sentenced to 204 months; and Kilfoil was sentenced to 180 months.  Following their sentencing, they filed this appeal.

“Minimal” Jury Instructions Were Reasonable

First, the defendants argued that the trial judge erroneously instructed the jury that the prosecution had to prove that the conspiracy “affected interstate or foreign commerce in any way, no matter how minimal.”  The district court based this instruction on the Fourth Circuit’s earlier decision in United States v. Graybut the defendants argued that RICO requires more than a minimal affect on foreign commerce, citing the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Waucaush v. United States.  In Waucaush, the Sixth Circuit held that an illegal conspiracy must have a “substantial effect” on interstate commerce to violate RICO.

The Fourth Circuit noted that it is not bound by the Waucaush decision and “doubt[ed] its validity.”  Further, the Court explained that the Waucaush holding was “limited to cases ‘where the enterprise itself did not engage in economic activity.'”  Here, the prosecution presented “ample” evidence of the Latin Kings’ economic activity, including bank fraud and various other scams.  The Fourth Circuit determined that this was sufficient to determine that the Waucaush reasoning should not apply here, and, accordingly, found that the district court’s jury instructions were reasonable.

Prosecution Presented More Than Sufficient Evidence

Additionally, the defendants claimed that the evidence of bank fraud was insufficient to show that the conspiracy affected interstate commerce.  The Fourth Circuit disagreed, but held that even if the bank fraud were considered insufficient, the prosecution presented ample other evidence to satisfy the “de minimis” interstate commerce requirement.  The Court held that evidence that the Latin Kings communicated about their conspiracies via phones and evidence that they committed robberies using guns that traveled in interstate commerce were also sufficient to satisfy the requirement.

Fourth Circuit Finds no Error in Conviction

Reviewing the district court’s decision, the Fourth Circuit found “no reversible error,” and, subsequently affirmed the defendants’ convictions.  The defendants appealed on several other joint and individual grounds, but the Fourth Circuit affirmed each of their convictions.