(LAS VEGAS CBS KXNT) Attorneys for 8 men on trial for charges stemming from a fight between members of two motorcycle clubs are battling longstanding negative perceptions of the Hells Angels as they try to seat a jury for the case.
Defense attorneys have questioned prospective jurors vigorously about their answers to “question 14″ on a questionnaire used by the lawyers as a vetting tool. The item is a disclosure of existing perceptions about the Hell’s Angels. A large number of the jurors have said they harbor negative perceptions because of media or literary portrayals of the biker club. Several have said they can’t guarantee they’d be able to hear the case with an open mind.
Few said they’d had first-hand experience with Hell’s Angel members.
Not all of the defendants are Hells Angels, defense attorneys told KXNT. There are also former members in the group, and one is a builder of custom motorcycles who never has been a member. He has built bikes for the members for several decades, said Attorney Chris Rasmussen, who represents one of the men.
Question 14 matters because a sentencing enhancement will apply if prosecutors can prove the men acted as part of a criminal gang. The criminal gang enhancement carries an extra 1-20 year sentence.
Defense attorneys asked the judge on Wednesday to dismiss jurors who said outright that they aren’t sure they can be fair during the trial because of their negative perceptions of the biker club. One is a former police officer who said his presence on the jury would be a “gamble” for the defendants. Another said he’d read a book about the Hells Angels, and is convinced that they are evil. More jurors simply disclosed that they’re familiar with the club only through media coverage or movies that left a negative impression.
Prosecutors from the Clark County District Attorney’s office will try to persuade jurors that the Hells Angels organization is a criminal enterprise, according to defense attorneys. The defense wants to avoid seating a jury that’s predisposed to believe it, stacking the odds in favor of a verdict that lengthens the sentences.
Jurors have little information about the case as they go through the vetting process. They’re encouraged to be honest about their prejudices, with emphasis primarily on the need for fairness. The jury pool was offered a glimpse of what lies ahead when an attorney said the jury may be called upon to decide whether the Hells Angels is a criminal organization, and suggested that it would be unfair to make that decision based on lingering impressions from things they have heard and read.
Attorneys described the Hell’s Angels organization to KXNT as a club with a formal structure and organization, not a gang.
The charges in a 13-count indictment arise from a 2008 fight with members of the Mongols, another motorcycle club, at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas, Rasmussen told KXNT. They were attending a wedding, and feared trouble when Mongol members arrived at the chapel for a separate event. Attorneys will argue the ensuing fight was an act of self-defense. The fight sent several Mongol members to the hospital, Rasmussen said.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the case.