Even by federal court standards, security in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara was tight Monday.
U.S. marshals, six of them, were positioned around the three defendants on trial, and two court security officers were stationed at the courtroom door. A third security officer patrolled the ninth-floor hallway outside.
The beefed-up security followed two separate reports of witness tampering, including one involving a man who was shot at just hours after testifying last week.
The show of strength also came on the heels of a courtroom confrontation between the lead prosecutor in the case and a man sitting in the gallery.
“You better not be tampering with witnesses,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi told the man.
“Those are serious allegations,” the man said as he left the courtroom Friday. “I’m not on trial. I have no interest in this.”
The encounter, which took place outside the presence of the jury, came two days after Tripi informed Arcara of an alleged shooting involving a witness who had testified the day before. Sources said the witness was not hurt and is currently in protective custody.
Two weeks earlier, at the outset of the trial, Tripi alerted the court to another incident, this one involving alleged verbal threats against a witness. Tripi declined to comment Monday on either incident. The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating.
Defense lawyers say their clients – Thamud Eldridge, Kevin Allen and Galen Rose – have not been linked to any incidents of witness intimidation. They also contend that the government has been slow to provide evidence of any threats.
“Despite our repeated requests, the defense has not been given any information which would substantiate claims that witnesses have actually been threatened,” the lawyers for Eldridge, Allen and Rose said in a joint statement to The Buffalo News.
Early in the trial, the defense filed a motion for mistrial and argued that the court’s enhanced security created an environment that unfairly prejudiced their clients.
They also contend that the defendants’ family members and friends have been subjected to questioning and monitoring when they enter the courtroom and, at least twice, have been asked by security officers to hand over notes they took while in the courtroom.
The motion also says the marshals and court security officers, most of whom are white, targeted selected courtroom visitors, all of whom were African-American.
Arcara denied the motion, but the defense filed a second motion for mistrial Monday. This time, they argued that Tripi’s confrontation with the courtroom observer, a relative of one of the defendants, was one more indication of the government’s efforts to intimidate their clients’ friends and family members.
Prosecutors allege that the man spoke to a witness as she was leaving the courtroom, but defense lawyers contend that the man denies saying anything at all.
The government, meanwhile, shows no signs of backing off the tampering and intimidation allegations that have served as a backdrop from the start of the trial two weeks ago. The defendants are charged with trafficking in cocaine and heroin and using murders, kidnappings and robberies to intimidate people and protect their turf in areas such as Montana, Newburgh and Box avenues.
Prosecutors say the defendants were linked to some of the city’s most dangerous gangs, including the Bloods and Montana Street Crew, and were widely known for their niche in the gang world: Making a living by robbing and sometimes killing drug dealers, many of them big-time suppliers.
The allegations of witness threats and intimidation are unusual but not unheard of in federal court in Buffalo.
In 2013, the home of a key witness in a high-profile drug case was raked with gunfire the night before he testified in court.
Ricky M. Allen, who had already admitted his role in the drug trafficking, was at home with his wife and 11-year old son at the time. One of the bullets shattered the window in his bedroom, but Allen said he never thought twice about taking the witness stand.
Allen, who could have faced up to 46 months in prison as part of his plea deal, was spared prison time, and Arcara acknowledged his testimony in the wake of threats against Allen’s family.