On Feb. 9, defense attorneys disclosed part of an innovative strategy they plan to use to defend Down Below Gang leader Emile Fort, who is accused of 30 federal crimes, including the murders of two teenagers and a baby. If convicted, Fort could face the death penalty.
Using the testimony of psychiatric and gang experts, attorneys Michael Satris and Michael Thorman will argue that a violent upbringing in Bayview–Hunters Point left Fort with cognitive defects and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which positioned him to commit and attempt murder in self-defense. (The PTSD defense will not be used for the count involving the baby, who was killed by a bullet apparently intended for a parent.) Satris and Thorman will attempt to convince the jury that when Fort fired fatal shots at 19-year-old Jovani Banks and 18-year-old Michael Hill and injured another man, he believed — based on unwritten laws of the projects — that he was defending his own life.
Although PTSD is a common defense for criminally accused war veterans, it rarely surfaces in cases against members of street gangs, according to several local defense attorneys. UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring says he has seen it used by battered wives who kill their husbands, "but battered gang-leader syndrome?" That's a new one, he says.
U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup was certainly unfamiliar. "Was Mr. Fort a Vietnam vet?" he asked the defense attorneys upon the mention of PTSD. They shook their heads. "You're saying that just being raised in that neighborhood is the equivalent of the Vietnam war?" he asked.
Actually, the projects may be worse. Recent studies and child trauma experts say that around a third of the children who grow up in violent neighborhoods have PTSD. That's much higher than the rate found in the troops returning from the Iraq war.
Fort is the last of 12 apprehended Down Below Gang members to appear in federal court. The rest pleaded guilty to combinations of murder, attempted murder, racketeering, and other charges, and struck deals with federal prosecutors. Thus far, Fort has not been so lucky. The U.S. Attorney's office has refused to cut a plea deal, meaning his life will be in the jury's hands. UC Hastings law professor Rory Little said capital cases in the Northern District Court are extremely rare. "There may not have been one in the last 100 years," he said.