A San Francisco drug gang member who was accused of three murders pleaded guilty in federal court today to a lesser charge, ending a trial in which he could have faced a rare federal death penalty if convicted. Emile Fort, 27, a member of the Down Below gang in the city’s Visitacion Valley neighborhood, pleaded guilty to one count to participate in a racketeering organization. U.S. District Judge William Alsup declared a mistrial in Fort’s trial, which began last week, and set a sentencing date of May 20.Under the plea agreement, Fort would be sentenced to 41 years and four months in prison. But Alsup, while agreeing to accept the plea, said he is not sure whether he will accept the proposed sentence.Alsup said during a hearing preceding the plea, “It seems to be a very lenient sentence in my view.” The judge said the sentence would be justified only by the risk that prosecutors would not have been able to win convictions on the original charges against Fort, which included three murders, drug conspiracy and use of firearms as well as racketeering.If Alsup does not impose the proposed sentence and sets a longer prison term instead, Fort would have the right to withdraw the guilty plea and have a new trial with a new jury. The maximum sentence for the racketeering charge is life in prison.During the guilty plea,Fort admitted to committing the three shooting murders as racketeering acts. But in the now-ended trial, the three murders were additionally charged as separate crimes and those charges carried a possible death penalty upon conviction.The murder victims were a 7-week-old baby killed in 2003 and two teenagers killed in 2004. Fort admitted during the guilty plea that he was aiming at the baby’s father, who was wounded, but a stray bullet ricocheted and hit the baby.The plea agreement and end to the death penalty trial were approved by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder of the Obama administration. Local prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco proposed a similar plea agreement with a 40-year sentence last year, but then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey of the Bush administration refused to approve it.Fort is one of 12 members of the Down Below Gang indicted in an 86-count indictment in 2005. The others have pleaded guilty to various charges.The gang allegedly operated in the neighborhood of the Sunnydale housing project, where it sold crack cocaine and other drugs and protected its turf with violence and murder, according to prosecutors. By coincidence, the Fort case is one of two death penalty trials that began in federal court in San Francisco last week. In the other trial, Dennis Cyrus, 24, an alleged member of the Page Street drug gang in the city’s Western Addition district, is accused of killing three men in 2002. That trial is continuing before U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney in a courtroom near Alsup’s at the Federal Building.The last death penalty case to go to trial in federal court in San Francisco was in 1948, when two Alcatraz prisoners who participated in a bloody escape attempt in 1946 were convicted, sentenced to death and executed for the killings of two guards.
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