How to Avoid Death by Angels

Judge explains how and why jurors were protected during a trial involving Hells Angels.

It seemed like a good idea at the time—referring to jurors by numbers rather than their real names—and now U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik is glad he did. After all, the defendants in the federal racketeering case Lasnik presided over here this summer were members of the Hells Angels, a group not known for its kindness to others. To wit, as one court witness testified, Angel Rodney Rollness, now doing life for murder, had warned him that if he spoke up, "he would take my tattoos off with a wire brush."

Lasnik recounts this in a newly filed memorandum "for completeness of the record," retroactively explaining why he took the exceptional act of impaneling an anonymous jury in an open courtroom. The case involved five members of the Washington Nomads chapter of the Angels, variously charged with conspiracy, racketeering, and murder (see "Born to be Wild," July 12, 2006). All were convicted or have pleaded guilty to lesser charges; Rollness and chapter president Smilin' Rick Fabel have been sent off to prison, and three others will be sentenced over the next few months.

The integrity of the court system usually demands that jurors not sit namelessly, Lasnik notes, but this case met the exceptional standard for anonymity. That included evidence of a history of violence and intimidation tactics employed by the defendants, and a clear need to protect jurors from harassment and harm. Recounting his thinking at the time, Lasnik cites several court cases along with the movie Gimme Shelter, in which members of the Angels, hired to provide security for performers such as the Rolling Stones, assault concertgoers and stab one to death.

"In addition," Lasnik writes, "the organization allegedly conducts thorough investigations into prospective members' financial, professional, and personal histories and could similarly probe jurors' backgrounds as a means of intimidation." Furthermore, several prospective jurors in Seattle expressed apprehension about passing judgment on an outlaw biker gang, says Lasnik, and—this being a notoriously popular case—it was likely the media would publish their names.

Subsequent testimony confirmed his decision, Lasnik says. He cites anonymous late-night calls warning a witness: "Don't show up for court." Another witness says he was told to keep his mouth shut and that he was "being watched." Those and other threats, including Rollness' proposed flesh-removing tattoo erasure, represent "only a sampling of the voluminous testimony by witnesses recalling threats and intimidation," says Lasnik.

"We are not meaning to insult you by calling you a number," Lasnik recalls telling jurors at the time. "But one of the reasons judges wear these black robes is we are not supposed to be personalities up here, we are supposed to be judges, and we all wear the robes to remind people that it's the position that counts. For you, while you are all individuals and very interesting people, when you come together as a jury you are supposed to blend in." And they were likely quite happy to do so.

 
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