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      Appeals Court Removes Judge Real from Sanchez Conspiracy Case, But Trial Not Over

      Judge Manuel Real was removed as presiding judge in the gang conspiracy case involving Alex Sanchez and 17 others by an order of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday.

      A new judge as well as new attorneys are being assigned to the case, which may be delayed. After being arrested in June 2009, Sanchez was freed on bail by a Ninth Circuit order in January 2010, and has been free while some 17 other defendants remain in custody.

      The removal of Judge Real is widely and privately applauded by many defense attorneys in Los Angeles because of his reputation for irrationality in the courtroom. His decisions have been reversed on appeal more than any judge now on the federal bench. At one point in October 2009, the judge chastised this writer in the courtroom for publishing an article in The Nation describing Real as “surreal” and suggesting that a fair trial for Sanchez was impossible.

      However, it was Real who called an extraordinary closed hearing on the Sanchez case which resulted in Sanchez’ release in January 2010, after nearly eight months in jail. The secret hearing came after the Ninth Circuit ordered Real to hold another bail hearing, but it was Real who made the final decision to turn Sanchez loose.

      Yesterday’s three-judge order came in a “not for publication” decision concerning double-jeopardy issues raised by several defendants. The panel also decided to allow the prosecution in the Sanchez case to use LAPD officer Frank Flores in multiple roles as an expert witness, a member of the prosecution team, and a victim alleged a gang conspiracy against himself. The Sanchez defense team argued that so many roles constituted a conflict of interest for the LAPD officer. The court decision briefly noted that Flores’ role could become the subject of future appeals. 

      Apparently the three-judge panel was concerned overall at Real’s strongly-held, often heated, opinions, including his opposition to the prosecution’s own request to stay the proceedings during appeals by defense lawyers. The prosecutors did not object to the request for a new judge.

      It is even possible that the prosecution itself wanted the removal of Judge Real since his behavior was becoming a distraction. The prosecutors officially took no position on the request for a new judge, which came from attorney Tom Kielty representing several defendants. 

      The Ninth Circuit might have envisaged a constant cycle of decisions, appeals and reversals coming from Real’s courtroom in the months and years ahead. Any such spectacle could be squelched by their new order.

      The court decision leaves Sanchez still facing charges that could result in conviction under the so-called RICO conspiracy law which is widely used by prosecutors in the absence of hard evidence. With Real out of the case, a more rational courtroom process still will leave Sanchez in a judicial system heavily weighted against Salvadoran immigrants who are former gang members, even those with many years’ experience as peacekeepers on the streets. Among Sanchez’ many vocal supporters are Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries and Tom Parker, a former top official in the FBI’s southern California region.

      A major problem for the prosecution going forward will be the disclosure of the extensive use of informants in LA, Colorado, Texas and El Salvador, including former top leaders of Mara Salvatrucha who have been providing information in exchange for deals with prosecutors. In seeking wiretap authority, the prosecutors failed again and again in their obligation to inform the judges that they had top gang leaders in custody. Under the law, wiretaps are authorized only when there are no other methods available for obtaining vital information on criminal activity. 

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