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Kingsmen killer could face death penalty in federal case

Andre Jenkins, in prison for life and with no chance of parole, would seem to have little to lose.

And yet, the convicted killer found himself in federal court this week facing charges that could lead to an even worse fate – the death penalty.

Jenkins is one of two defendants in another Kingsmen motorcycle case charged with a federal death penalty-eligible crime.

In seeking the death penalty, prosecutors claim Jenkins and David Pirk, the club’s national president, plotted and carried out the murders of fellow Kingsmen Daniel “DJ” Szymanski and Paul Maue in September 2014. Under federal law, an intentional, premeditated murder can be grounds for seeking the death penalty.

“He absolutely denies the charges and maintains his innocence,” Barry Covert, Jenkins’ defense lawyer, said earlier this week.

Covert, who handled two previous death penalty cases, declined to comment on the likelihood of his client’s prosecution becoming a capital case, but others suggested privately that it’s a long shot.

“No case becomes a death penalty case unless the attorney general authorizes it,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.

It was Hochul, armed with a grand jury indictment, who filed the murder charges against Jenkins and Pirk. But his boss, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, will be the one who decides if the death penalty is ultimately sought.

In the past, attorneys general have been reluctant to use the death penalty in gang cases or when the prosecution involves what some lawyers call “gang-on-gang” killings.

It’s also no secret that Lynch’s predecessors approved the death penalty in less than 13 percent of all eligible cases and that no one on federal death row has been executed since 2003.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors say most federal death penalty cases are high-profile prosecutions involving terrorism or a large number of victims. They point to the Boston Marathon bombing and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death last year.

Federal prosecutors, in their indictment of Jenkins, Pirk and 14 other Kingsmen, claim the two murders at the heart of the case were carried out after “planning and premeditation” by Pirk and Jenkins.

Jenkins previously was convicted of the murders in state court and is currently serving a sentence of life without parole.

The federal case also re- volves around the government’s claim that the Kingsmen are a criminal organization that supports itself with drug dealing, prostitution and illegal firearm sales and relies on murder, kidnapping and violence to protect the club.

This is not the first time Hochul has sought the death penalty. His office, in fact, has acquired a reputation for being aggressive – some say overzealous – in death penalty cases.

In 2011, The Buffalo News reported that Hochul’s office filed more eligible cases in the two previous years than all but two federal prosecutors in the country. None of those cases was approved by the attorney general, and defense lawyers say the strategy overburdened the courts and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We’re prosecuting very, very violent cases,” Hochul said earlier this week. “We always go where the crimes and criminals take us.”

And Hochul offers no apologies. He often speaks to block clubs and community groups and they are unanimous in their support of his anti-gang campaign, he said.

Hochul also has the backing of local law enforcement, many of whom think the federal death penalty provides an incentive for guilty defendants to take plea deals or to cooperate with prosecutors.

Prosecutors told U.S., Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer, who is handling the Kingsmen case, they hope to have a final decision from the attorney general next week.