After Elliot "Hollywood" Raibon's murder trial in May 1989, Denver district attorneys knew that gang cases were going to be different from anything they'd done before.
"We didn't have a gang unit back then," recalls Tom Clinton, who tried the case and now heads the Denver district attorney's gang-prosecuting unit. "In dealing with that first case, it became apparent that these cases needed to be dealt with differently."
Raibon, then seventeen, was convicted for the November 1988 fatal shooting of Cameron Smith, eighteen. Raibon and his Rollin' 30 Crip gang buddies were out looking for trouble that night, when Smith happened to ride by on his bicycle wearing a red hat.
Since then, Clinton and the three other attorneys assigned to the unit have seen their business grow. Now they deal regularly with witness intimidation, threats and witnesses refusing to testify because they fear retaliation. "Those problems can begin from the time a cop picks up a case," Clinton says. "Oftentimes, incidents aren't even reported to police. Often it requires the power of the court to make a person testify."
In Raibon's case, his gang of Crips mistook Smith, a college student, for a Blood gang member because he was wearing red. Back then, it was a motive that took the public and the prosecutors by surprise. Smith died simply because he had on the wrong color.
"We had another drive-by shooting, and it took off from there," Clinton says of the gang unit.
But the historic Raibon case is more than just a landmark in the story of gang violence in Denver. Raibon, now 23, is back in court pleading for a new trial. Defense attorney Ferdinand Torres, claiming that "the integrity of the truth-seeking process was violated," is arguing that Raibon's original attorneys did not do an adequate job. The new trial hearing began December 12 but was interrupted by the holidays.
Raibon acknowledges that he was present during the murder but insists that Taylor Chambers, one of the other gang members there that night, did the shooting. Raibon testified at the hearing that he had a .25 semiautomatic gun, while Chambers carried a .38 pistol--the type of gun Smith was shot with.
He also said he didn't confess to the killing, although a Denver police detective said he did. He said he didn't get on the stand and say so because public defenders Steve Flavin and Lisa Wayne advised him not to. "I asked them, and they said it wouldn't be wise--that was Lisa's exact words," Raibon said. "We were under the impression that I had a juvenile felony on my record, and that could discredit me."
On the night he was killed, Cameron Smith was riding his bike from his girlfriend's house. The red hat he wore proudly displayed the colors of the University of Oklahoma, from which he had just received a scholarship.
"There goes a dead hat," Raibon testified he said when Smith rode by them. He also explained that as Crips, he and his fellow gang members did not even say the word "red," because it was the color worn by rival Bloods. Taylor Chambers, the way Raibon recalled it, was an "OG" (original gangster) with Denver's Rollin' 30 Crips. "He could order all the younger homies around," Raibon testified. "Whatever he told me was like the Bible--the Word. He ordered me to get out of the car and confront Cameron Smith to see if he was a Blood."
So, while Chambers and three other gangsters (Kenny "Pusher" Trimble, Walter "One-Two" Stegall and driver Harold Cavitt) watched, Raibon said, he got out of the car to see whether Smith was a "Slob," the Crips' derogatory term for Bloods. "I fired the .25 in the air," Raibon said. "By this time, Cameron Smith was three or four feet away. We started arguing. He was asking me, `Why ya shooting at me, man?' I said, `Man, are you a Slob or what?'
"I got tired of arguing with him, so I hit him. I put the gun in my right pocket and we started fighting."
Raibon said Smith got the best of him in the struggle that ensued. "I was drunk," Raibon explained. "He body-slammed me right there on the grass. I got the wind knocked out of me."
It's here where Raibon and his former gang buddies have a major parting of ways. During the 1989 trial, Trimble and Stegall, in exchange for immunity, both testified that Raibon shot Smith. Chambers did not testify after prosecutors refused to grant him immunity because he was under investigation for a separate crime.
Raibon, telling his story in court December 14, said something different.
"I saw Taylor, One-Two and Kenny Trimble," Raibon said. "I was face-down. I could see from the side. Kenny Trimble pushed him [Smith] off me. Taylor was like, `I'm going to smoke this Slob.' Taylor just started firing. I didn't want to get hit. Me and One-Two started running. He [Taylor] shot at least five or six times. I didn't ever see [Taylor shooting], because as soon as I got up off the ground, Taylor started firing, so me and One-Two took off to the car.
"Taylor and Kenny got in, and we drove off. Kenny started talking to Taylor: `Hey, man, you smoked that Slob.'"
Back in 1989, Stegall and Trimble testified that Chambers had a .38-caliber pistol earlier in the evening but gave it to Raibon later. Police confiscated a .25-caliber semiautomatic from Raibon when he was arrested, but a .38 was never recovered.
Torres is trying to make an issue during the current hearing of the fact that Flavin and Wayne did not use a ballistics expert. But Denver prosecuting attorney Tim Twining says that was a red herring because police never recovered the murder weapon. "There was nothing to compare," he says.
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Torres also has presented jail records indicating that Flavin and Wayne, in the nine months before Raibon's trial, saw Raibon at the jail for a total of 45 minutes.
"I think it shocks the conscience when you don't go in and review the evidence with your client," a defense witness, attorney Gordon Sanchez, testified. "You do that with a DUI, let alone a murder case."
Flavin and Wayne, who have not yet testified in the hearing, did not return phone calls last week. But Denver defense attorney Larry Pozner says Flavin and Wayne have a proven track record and are "tremendously qualified people." Besides, Pozner adds, there are many places to meet with a client besides the jail. "You can't tell from a jail log," Pozner says. "Anytime they have a hearing, you could meet with them at the courthouse and there would be no record of it."
The hearing is expected to resume this month.