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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Organized-crime act targets drug gangs

Looking tired and resigned, Shaneka Penix stood before U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles in his Baltimore courtroom yesterday morning and quietly asked for mercy. "I believe I deserve a second chance," she said.

Penix was caught selling crack cocaine in August and September of last year. It was her first serious infraction. But because of her affiliation with the Maryland division of a drug gang known as the Tree Top Piru Bloods, she was charged and convicted of conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act, or RICO. At 23, Penix, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, was facing a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 10 years.

"When you're convicted under RICO, the sentences are a lot longer than they are for the base offenses," said Frank Razzano, an adjunct law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an editor of a RICO law journal.

That is among the reasons prosecutors like it. The law was enacted nearly 40 years ago to take down traditional, Godfather-style Mafia members, though it is rarely used for that anymore. Instead, it has become a widely used tool against more contemporary mobsters, the drug gangs terrorizing U.S. cities. [Mark Godsey]

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