Prosecuted For a RICO Conspiracy Over Facebook Posts

In 2021, Chris Howard was working for UPS delivering packages out of a Westchester facility. He had been working to piece his life back together after being in federal custody for almost two years following an indictment on a case under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) – one of the most serious cases the federal government can pin against you.

In 2017, Chris had been charged, along with 32 others, in three separate indictments naming three different alleged gangs in the Bronx. Chris was charged with racketeering, committing a violent crime in aid of racketeering, and using or possessing a gun in furtherance of a crime related to the gang he was accused of being in, the Millbrook Gangstas.

Chris, or JuJu as his family and friends call him, grew up between the Bronx and Staten Island and had longtime friends in the Millbrook Houses. In 2011, he was violently sucker-punched as part of a back and forth between different factions in the neighborhood, although he and his family deny that altercation had anything to do with a gang. 

But the RICO case that prosecutors would launch against him years later hinged on the allegation that Chris had shot that same person who’d punched him, along with two others, in retaliation – three years after the punch. The shooting, they argued, was in furtherance of a gang in the Millbrook Houses. Their evidence? There was no gun, ballistics, DNA, or even video evidence linking Chris to the shooting. Prosecutors claimed that because Chris had made threatening Facebook posts about that person back in 2011, he was therefore the shooter. But more than three years had passed since the punch – why would Chris wait so long to retaliate?

Chris and one other co-defendant, Michael White, were the only two people who took their cases to trial. Most others pled guilty, common for people facing the daunting task of taking on the federal government and risking major time in prison if they lost in trial. In February 2019, eighteen months after being indicted, Chris’s trial began. 

The odds of beating a federal case are low. The federal government boasts a conviction rate of around 95%. The odds of beating a federal RICO case are even less likely. The federal government has unique powers when it comes to RICO. Though COPWATCH.MEDIA has covered some of the history of RICO before, Lucy Litt in the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law explains its dragnet capabilities: 

“The RICO statute only requires a few individuals (“targets”) to be tied to predicate charges for RICO to sweep up additional people (“affiliates”) who are in any way associated with those targets; so-called affiliates do not even necessarily have to have committed lesser predicate offenses. Thus, law enforcement officers can arrest the acquaintances of RICO targets and can then proceed to charge them for whatever non-RICO, non-predicate violations they might have committed. This is the opposite of the foundational values on which our justice system is constructed, and which law enforcement purports to uphold: the friends of RICO targets suffer a presumption of guilt by association and are only investigated ex post facto and without the benefit of a presumption of innocence.”

Without physical evidence tying Chris to the shooting, prosecutors relied on cooperators. One cooperating witness testified that he saw Chris at the shooting, though that witness, according to Chris’ family, initially told police he hadn’t seen the shooting but changed his tune when offered leniency from prosecutors for other charges he was facing. Another witness, however, contradicted that statement and said Chris wasn’t at the shooting. Chris’ grandmother also told COPWATCH.MEDIA that some of the government’s cooperators said that he was not part of any fighting or drug-dealing – elements often central to a RICO conspiracy.

In fact, apart from cooperators, the federal government’s argument that Chris was part of the gang, and therefore part of the RICO, relied on Facebook posts he’d made as a minor and young man years before the shooting in question. And although Chris did visit the Millbrook Houses, where he has family, and knew people who may have been in a gang, his family points out that befriending other young men who have been accused of engaging in criminal behavior is nearly impossible when living in a housing project where the NYPD has overpoliced. The government, they say, is criminalizing the conditions that they have created and perpetuating a cycle of disenfranchisement, community disconnection, and poverty – conditions that produce crime.

After prosecutors and Chris’ attorney finished their closing arguments, it took the jury three days to deliberate. According to Chris and his family, some members of the jury wrote a note to Judge Robert Sweet explaining that they disagreed with some of the charges. Sweet, according to Chris, pressured the jury to make a decision. They ultimately found him guilty. Chris’ mother and other family members say that some jurors were crying in court when the verdict was read. His brother recalls speaking to a jury member who told him that he didn’t want to convict Chris. 

A few months later, Judge Sweet died and was replaced on the case by Judge Analisa Torres. Before sentencing, Judge Torres did something remarkable: she granted a motion from Chris’ attorney to dismiss two of Chris’ top charges. Torres agreed that those charges were not connected to the RICO conspiracy, as prosecutors had alleged. In an unusual turn of events for some charged under RICO that took their case to trial, Chris was sentenced to two years, time he’d already served, and was released in December of 2020.

Chris was reunited with his family, including his 3-year old daughter, thinking that he had beaten the odds – that he had essentially beaten a RICO case. However, federal prosecutors, who had been seeking 20 years in prison for Chris, appealed the sentencing. 

The following year, a panel of federal appellate judges reversed Torres’s decision and reinstated the charges she had dismissed. In their decision, they cited old Facebook posts where they say Chris promoted violence and talked about the gang. His family points out that Chris was still a minor at the time and was upset after being sucker-punched, which had sent him to the hospital for a broken jaw. One of the appellate judges was Lewis Kaplan, one of the judges assigned to the infamous Bronx 120 gang prosecution. 

Nearly two years after coming home, Chris has been awaiting resentencing for crimes he says he never committed. In fact, his family says, he had never been convicted of a crime in his life before this RICO case. In September, Chris was ordered remanded and had to turn himself in back into custody. His new sentence will be decided by Judge Torres but he now faces a mandatory minimum of at least ten years for a gun charge though police never found a gun. As his family awaits word on his resentencing date, they’re left wondering how much longer their nightmare will last. 

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