Many legal experts said it couldn't be done, but District Attorney Danny Craig and his two able assistants, Patricia Johnson and Willie Saunders, on Friday proved them wrong - that Georgia's rarely used RICO statute was not too difficult or complicated for a jury to follow, and then to convict six very bad guys.
The Craig team's victory was stunning, especially to the defendants and their lawyers who apparently didn't think it could happen, but it did: Carlston Coleman and Ronald Coleman Jr., though unrelated, were found to be kinship in crime, guilty of breaking the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, kidnapping, burglary, armed robbery, hijacking a motor vehicle and possessing a weapon during a crime. Four other thugs linked to the Colemans were convicted of violating RICO.
The Coleman verdicts were tied to their participation in a pattern of criminal actions that led to the brutal murders of Ryan J. Singh and Manuel Arroya in 1997 and Sam's Club manager David Holt in 1998. The duo will later face murder charges in jurisdictions where the slayings took place - Warren County, Ga., and Aiken County, S.C., respectively.
For now, however, as David Holt's widow, Donna, said, the community is a lot safer with these gangsters off the streets. If they get the maximum sentences that senior Judge Bernard J. Mulherin Sr. can hand down, the Colemans will spend the rest of their lives behind bars and the four others, 20 years - even if they aren't convicted in the murders.
Defense lawyers say they're optimistic they can get the convictions overturned on appeal, but if they look at the D.A.'s record of protecting verdicts they have a tough nut to crack. Since he took office in 1993, Craig has been reversed only once in 68 appeals.
The prosecutors are by no means the only people deserving of praise for the job they've done. Law-enforcement cooperation was terrific. The FBI, the GBI and the Richmond County Sheriff's Department put in endless hours of hard work over the years to link the chain of evidence.
The fruits of their labors were incisively defended by sheriff's Sgt. Wayne Bunton, who underwent a withering cross-examination during his more than two days of testimony, and GBI agent Steve Foster who spent five days on the stand, four of them being rigorously cross-examined. There's no way convictions would have happened if these two guys weren't believed. Bunton and Foster knew their stuff and hung tough throughout.
Also courageously hanging in there was the majority black jury. Craig said it was one of the best juries he's ever dealt with. Their patience and thoughtfulness in following often complicated testimony and evidence couldn't have been more impressive.
Now that Craig has proved how RICO can be used to put away the bad guys, watch for other prosecutors around the state to take a closer look at the statute. When used right, RICO can be a terrific weapon against crime.
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