To shackle or not to shackle?
That was the question U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna pondered for the scheduled October trial against Peter Ojeda, the alleged Orange County boss of the Mexican Mafia, and several associates.
Lawyers for the defendants argued that shackling wasn't necessary, claiming their clients have no history of disrupting judicial proceedings, and there would be a risk of a mistrial if future jurors observe the extra security measures and become unduly frightened by the defendants.
But federal prosecutors agreed with Selna's proposal, noting that the Mexican Mafia has a long history of violence, even murder--and that there will likely be intense animosity between defendants and government witnesses who testify inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana.
"The facts of this case warrant the use of leg shackles," Assistant United States Attorney Robert J. Keenan told the judge.
After consulting the U.S. Marshal, however, Selna decided against using shackles or handcuffs. He wants Ojeda and at least one other in-custody co-defendant to be strapped into their seats with a special security lap belt.
Jurors will not see the belts and the judge has ordered his clerk not to perform her customary "All rise!" command when he enters and exits the courtroom so that the defendants aren't singled out as unable or unwilling to stand.
Defense lawyers also objected to Selna's consideration of empaneling an anonymous jury. They claim the move isn't just unnecessary but would unfairly hamper their decisions picking the panel.
"Nowhere does the indictment allege any violence or threats of violence to any person not a gang member or associate," said Ellen M. Barry, attorney for Jacobo Huanosto. "Further, nowhere does the indictment indicate that any charged defendant or unnamed, unindicted co-conspirator ever threatened or committed violent acts against witnesses."
Shielding the identities of jurors is necessary for safety reasons, Selna decided. He said he wants them to feel comfortable enough to do their jobs without fearing retaliation, especially given that Mexican Mafia associates are expected to attend the trial as observers. Heightened detection measures against someone smuggling weapons into the courthouse also will be imposed during the trial.
"The Court is satisfied that with these security measures, the defendants' presumption of innocence will not be compromised," the judge ruled.
The defense lawyers also lost their opposition to Selna moving this trial to a special, security enhanced courtroom that will put the defendants in stadium-style seating.
They did, however, win a motion to increase juror pay by $10 a day after the tenth day of trial. The usual amount is $40, but the case could last months and the defense lawyers believe a $50 a day pay makes it less likely that poorer potential jurors would employ a financial hardship excuse to avoid service.
Ojeda, 73, and the other defendants are charged in a massive indictment alleging they operated a racketeering organization that distributed narcotics, taxed other hoodlums, committed violence to enforce their street power and plotted murders.
Numerous gangsters named in the indictment have pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced but still lenghty prison terms.
If convicted, Ojeda--a.k.a. "The Senor," "Sana," "The Big Homie," "The Old Man," "Viejo," and "Santa Clause,"--faces a maximum term of life in prison.
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Prior to the pending case, Ojeda's rap sheet included nine felony convictions since 1964.
His 2005 arrest was the result of a joint federal/state law enforcement operation.