RENO, Nev. (AP) — Citing the potential to taint the jury, a state judge told prosecutors in Reno on Tuesday not to refer to the Hells Angels or Vagos as motorcycle gangs during an upcoming trial for suspects in a 2011 shootout at a casino in neighboring Sparks.
Washoe County District Court Judge Connie Steinheimer said that referring to the rival entities as outlaw gangs could deny defendants a fair trial. But she also warned defense lawyers not to emphasize that Hells Angels are formally incorporated in the U.S. as the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
"From now on, no gangs, no clubs," the judge ruled during a hearing on a series of pretrial motions for the joint trial of a member of each gang set to begin July 22.
"Use proper names. Refer to the Hells Angels as the Hells Angels and the Vagos as the Vagos," she said.
Ernesto Gonzalez, 53, president of the Vagos chapter in Nicaragua, has pleaded not guilty to open murder in the September 2011 death of Jeffrey Pettigrew, president of the Hells Angels chapter in San Jose, Calif.
Cesar Villagrana, a member of the Hells Angels, has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder. His lawyer said he was only defending himself and Pettigrew when gunfire erupted and turned the casino floor of John Ascuaga's Nugget into a shooting gallery during a weekend biker festival in Reno and Sparks. He's accused of shooting a Vagos member in the leg.
Richard Schonfeld, a lawyer for Villagrana, said witnesses and prosecutors referenced the Hells Angels motorcycle gang "probably 50 times in two hours" of testimony on Monday.
"You can't continuously refer to the 'Hells Angels gang, Hells Angels gang, Hells Angels gang' during the whole trial, and then say to the jury it now is your duty to decide whether the Hells Angels is a motorcycle gang," he said Tuesday. "It is inherently prejudicial."
"Our position is they are the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. It's not arguing the case. That is their name," he said.
But Steinheimer said that in the same way that "gang" carries a negative connotation, labeling an organization as a "club" can have a positive connotation and could be used in arguments to skew the jury's viewpoint as well. She said she would allow the lawyers to use the phrases during closing arguments, and for expert witnesses to offer their opinions as to whether a particular group operated as a gang.
Assistant district attorney Karl Hall said he was confident the judge could differentiate when the phrases were being abused during the trial. He said the gang element is necessary to prove additional penalties are warranted as part of a criminal "gang enhancement" under Nevada law, and that ignoring that would preclude the reading of the indictment at trial.
"We have charged murder and there are victims and we have charged gang enhancement," he argued.
Steinheimer said at the close of two days of hearings Tuesday that she wasn't ready to rule on several other motions, including the prosecution's requests to bar gang colors and symbols from the courthouse and to keep the jurors anonymous for fear of intimidation or retaliation.
Defense lawyers, meanwhile, have asked her to relax what they say is an exaggerated security presence in and around the courtroom that could potentially impact the jury's outlook. The lawyers also want to suppress statements Gonzalez allegedly made when he initially was detained by campus police in San Francisco on Sept. 29, 2011 about his fear that rival assassins were hot on his trail.
The judge said she'd take those motions under advisement and rule in the coming days or weeks.
Sgt. Wade Mullen, a 20-year veteran of the Washoe County sheriff's department in charge of courthouse security, testified Monday in support of the added security that includes at times nearly a dozen uniformed officers, police dogs and a second security check with magnetic wands at the courtroom door in addition to the metal detector at the courthouse entrance.
"If you paid off a janitor, he could secure a gun in a bathroom or somewhere in the courthouse," Mullen said.
He also urged a strict ban on gang colors, something he said only fuels animosity between "rival gangs that don't like each other."
"When you wear colors, you are throwing it in the face of the other gang," he said. "My fear is it will continue to build until somebody looks at each other the wrong way and a fight will break out. And I can't have that in here."
Schonfeld said during Tuesday's arguments that keeping the jurors' names secret from even the defense team "is a drastic measure."
But prosecutors said they have provided numerous incidents of members of both gangs trying to intimidate jurors and threatening witnesses.