Extreme odds

The legacy of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick emboldens prosecutors to level racketeering charges in violent crime cases

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Racketeering conspiracy, a legal weapon designed to topple mafia kingpins, largely went untested in Metro Detroit aside from isolated cases until 2013.

That’s when former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. The legal victory emboldened federal prosecutors to wield the charge against Seven Mile Bloods members and others accused of violent crimes.

Kwame Kilpatrick (Video: The Detroit News)

Defendants face extreme odds beating racketeering-related charges in federal court. Since 2008, only five people have been acquitted of the charge, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Since 2014, at least 92 people, including gangsters, bikers and methamphetamine dealers, have been convicted of the federal crime locally. That’s a 46 percent increase from the five years leading up to Kilpatrick’s conviction, according to court statistics.

Federal agents trying to crack criminal organizations are aided by the wealth of evidence spread across social media. In the Seven Mile Bloods case, that means Facebook and Instagram posts, YouTube videos and text messages.

“Social media absolutely helps us bring cases faster,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Graveline said. “And people who might have been fearful in the neighborhood are not as fearful once they see people getting arrested and not coming back.”

More racketeering conspiracy cases are pending, including a case against 11 people linked to one of the Seven Mile Bloods’ rivals, the 6 Mile Chedda Grove gang.

In 2016, the year after the first Seven Mile Bloods indictment, non-fatal shootings on the east side of Detroit fell 62 percent, according to prosecutors.

The drop coincided with a new approach to reducing homicides and violent crime in the city.

The collaboration focuses on identifying street gangs and members involved in violent crime.

Homicides fell 30 percent in the city and non-fatal shootings declined 45 percent from 2012 to last year, according to Justice Department statistics.

Despite those gains, FBI data released last fall showed violent crime in Detroit rose 15.7 percent in 2016 compared to a year earlier, an increase that ranked it as the nation’s most violent big city. Police officials disputed the distinction.

Racketeering conspiracy cases, meanwhile, are complex but let prosecutors link multiple people to a variety of crimes in a single case, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

“It’s a good vehicle to pull all these disparate parts together and put the bad guys into one big pile and show here’s what this one did, here’s what that one did, and they’re all liable for it,” Henning said. “It can quickly add up to a life term.”

The Seven Mile Bloods indictment is based on guilt by association, said Michael Rataj, a defense lawyer for Seven Mile Bloods case defendant Quincy Graham, who is charged with being a member of the racketeering conspiracy.

“What they’ve done is scooped up a bunch of guys from a neighborhood, gave them a tag and said ‘you’re all a bunch of gangsters,'” Rataj said.

Henning is not surprised to see a spike in racketeering prosecutions since Kilpatrick was sentenced to prison.

“Prosecutors won’t do new things until they see someone else do it and see that it works,” Henning said. “They want a template. Nothing strikes more fear in a prosecutor than being the first. They see how it worked in the Kwame Kilpatrick case and they’ve gotten better at it.”

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