On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made the surprising decision to remove controversial Judge Manual Real from the federal RICO case that involves Alex Sanchez.
This news shocked nearly everyone who is closely tracking the Sanchez matter. Yanking a federal judge from a case is anything but business as usual.
As most longtime WitnessLA readers know, Alex Sanchez is the Salvadoran-born, former MS-13 gang member turned highly respected gang violence reduction activist who has been accused of a long list of Federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. According to the government’s case, the supposedly reformed Sanchez never reformed at all, but remained, in reality, a MS-13 shot caller who ordered at least one murder.
(For the rest of the backstory click here and then scroll down a bunch and read from the bottom up.)
The judge assigned to his case, U.S. District Court Judge Manual Real, was appointed to the federal bench in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson.
At nearly 88 (his birthday is Jan. 27), Real is what we used to call a character. He has spent 45 years on the same bench and, in his court room, he projects an image that combines the demeanor of an irascible uncle who mutters loudly and tyrannically over his soup at Thanksgiving dinner, with that of a glowering bird of prey.
Yet, unlike your irascible uncle, Real wields enormous power over the lives of those who come before him. According to his critics, who are many and varied, he is a bully on the bench who often makes up his mind on a case before it goes to trial and then may visibly telegraphs his opinion to all in the courtroom. He once threatened to throw then California Attorney General Dan Lungren into jail for contempt and used to be known for telling lawyers “This isn’t Burger King. We don’t do it your way here.”
Real’s reversal rate is estimated to be 10 times the average for sitting federal judges.
He has had at least ten cases outright snatched away from him by appeals courts.
In 2006, there was serious talk of impeaching him.
Even in the Sanchez case, it took four separate hearings and the interference of the 9th Circuit, before Real would allow Sanchez’ attorney to fully present arguments for setting bail for Sanchez. (However, to Real’s credit, in January of 2010 Real called for a special closed door hearing, after which he did set Sanchez’s bail at $2 million, an amount that friends and supporters had already raised in the form of surities and property.)
Since Sanchez was originally arrested on the RICO charges in June 2009, this means, had thee been no bail he would have spent, as of this writing, 2 years and 7 months in jail, with no trial as yet in sight.
The change in judges will, of course, push Sanchez’ trial back still further.
Yet, with the alarming wild card presence of Judge Real now removed, no one in either the Sanchez or the prosecution camps, appears to be complaining.
NOTE: In the interest of transparency, it’s important that I tell those of you new to this story that I consider Alex Sanchez a respected and valued friend. This means that while I work very hard to give readers the most factual possible information on the issue, I also have strong feelings about this case.
When California Lawyer Magazine contacted Pulitzer-winning author/journalist, Edward Humes, to write something about the case of Alex Sanchez (published in their February issue), Humes said he first took the story assignment because he was intrigued by the notion that someone as beloved as gang intervention leader Sanchez was said to be living an elaborate double life.
“That becomes the HBO movie, right?” he said.
But as Humes delved into the details of the case and began going to Sanchez’ hearings in federal court, presided over by Judge Manual Real (a character so extravagantly quirky that he begs to be incorporated into a novel), Humes says he began to wonder if perhaps the real story wasn’t something quite different than the tale he first imagined.
As most WitnessLA readers know, Alex Sanchez is a former MS-13 gang member turned highly respected gang violence reduction activist who has been accused of a long list of Federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. According to the government’s case, the supposedly reformed Sanchez never reformed at all, but remained, in reality, a MS-13 shot caller who ordered at least one murder.
Since most LA media outlets have all but ignored the story, I wanted to know more about how and why Humes became interested. Hence our conversation.
Humes told me that one of the things that first caught his attention when he began to get into the case was the fact that bulk of the evidence that the federal lawyers presented against Sanchez focused on four wire-tapped conversations in which Sanchez took part. “But you have these dueling interpretations of the main quotes.” Humes said. As he writes in his article, the government’s interpretation is provided by an LAPD gang expert named Frank Flores. The defense had the conversations independently translated by gang intervention and recovery expert Father Greg Boyle.
I asked Humes what he thought of the discrepant interpretations. “Frankly, Father Boyle’s version of the conversations make a lot more sense in context,” he said
After looking at the dueling translations, Humes said he began to wonder why the government’s interpretation of conversations and events seemed all to require an assumption of guilt.
“The Supreme Court is very clear that the prosecution’s job is-–not to win—but to see that justice is done. So one of the questions I still want answered is why are they so convinced that he [Sanchez] is dirty since they haven’t produced convincing evidence so far? There may be a lot more at the trial, but based on what they’ve produced so far….”
As to whether he has a gut feeling about Alex Sanchez guilt or innocence himself, Humes won’t commit. “Let’s just say that basically I have a lot of questions about the government’s case. And they need to be answered.”
Humes’ willingness to ask questions has produced an even-handed, thought-provoking and informative look at the case thus far.
Below you’ll find a clip from the story’s opening. But be sure to read the whole article from beginning to end. it’s more than worth your time.
[FIRST, ONE SMALL NOTE: The Sanchez trial was supposed to have begun yesterday, on Valentine's Day. It has now been delayed until September 2011, at the earliest. With the ever-receding trial date in mind, it is worth remembering that, had Sanchez' attorney and supporters not managed to get the presiding judge to reverse himself and grant Sanchez a $2 million bail (and even that only after four bail hearings and the intervention of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals), the defendant---whether guilty or innocent---would have remained in jail from June 2009 until....whenever.]
The four phone calls that put Alex Sanchez in jail—and in the middle of a massive federal racketeering and conspiracy case—were angry, profane, and seemingly illuminating. They opened a rare window not only onto the brutal, secretive, backstabbing world of one of America’s most notorious street gangs, but also on the life of Sanchez himself, a nationally prominent anti-gang activist in Los Angeles credited with steering hundreds of young people away from lives of crime and violence.
What Sanchez didn’t know in 2006 when he participated in those calls was that the FBI was listening in. Nor could he have guessed that the words he spoke would help convince a federal-local investigative task force that Sanchez was leading a double life, publicly opposing gangs in his day job, then moonlighting after hours as a leader or “shot-caller” of the Los Angeles street-gang-turned-international-crime-syndicate known as Mara Salvatrucha—MS-13.
The feds characterized one conversation in particular as a smoking gun. It was a conference call with several known members of MS-13, who continually referred to Sanchez as Rebelde, Spanish for rebel, his old nickname from the gang life he’d supposedly left behind 15 years before. The men on the tape debated what to do about an El Salvador – based gangster known as Camarón (the Shrimp), whom Sanchez accused of falsely branding him a police informant—a veritable death sentence in these circles. Sanchez wanted to turn the tables: “He has to face the consequences,” he urged. “We have said it, we go to war.”
Little more than a week after that exchange, the lifeless corpse of Camarón, whose real name was Walter Lacinos, was found shot through the head in La Libertad, El Salvador, a hotbed of MS-13 activity.
Had the FBI just heard Sanchez’s alter ego, Rebelde, order a hit on Camarón? That was the story the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles offered at a press conference in June 2009 to announce a historic racketeering indictment against Sanchez and 23 named MS-13 members.
“Today in Los Angeles, where the MS-13 gang was formed, we are holding its leaders accountable for the violence and intimidation they have used to bring terror to the citizens living and working within the gang’s territory,” then-U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien told reporters. The indictments marked the latest assault in a nine-year war on MS-13 by the FBI, which had used 21 court-ordered wiretaps to monitor thousands of phone conversations.
The wiretaps had already helped build an earlier state case against the alleged top shot-caller for MS-13 in Los Angeles. (It also appears that the FBI had made informants out of the alleged “CEO” of MS-13’s worldwide operations, as well as his second-in-command.) Now the recordings were being used in an effort to bring down Sanchez, a poster boy for the gang-prevention efforts that many law enforcement officials reflexively distrusted.
The latest indictments charged that the defendants had conspired to engage in extortion, drug dealing, robbery, witness intimidation, and seven murders. The complaint also described a failed conspiracy to assassinate one of the government’s top gang experts, Detective Frank Flores of the Los Angeles Police Department.
This was a major breakthrough in the fight against MS-13, proclaimed then-LAPD Chief William Bratton, speaking at O’Brien’s press conference. He branded the gang “a cancer … that lacks a single redeeming quality.” And yet no aspect of the story drew as much attention as the charges against Sanchez.
The video is from March 2009 at UCLA where Alex Sanchez was on a panel examining “Global Perspectives of Youth and Violence.” Three months later, Sanchez would be arrested by the FBI for racketeering and conspiracy, charges that could get him sentenced to life in prison.