ANNAPOLIS – Edgewood cabbie Derald Howard Guess, 37, was killed in December, murdered in what authorities say was part of a gang initiation rite.
Three men are awaiting trial in the slaying of Guess, a father of nine. But prosecutors said Thursday they need tools to go after the gangs themselves, because “criminal gangs” are not even mentioned in Maryland law.
“Nowhere in the code of Maryland is the word gang mentioned,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford, at a Thursday news conference. “The Maryland law is behind.”
Lawmakers hope to change that with a bill that they said is aimed at combating such deadly initiation rituals and curbing the power of street gangs.
The House and Senate bills would define “criminal gang” in the law and make it a felony to threaten or coerce another person into joining or staying in a gang.
The measures would also allow evidence of gang activity to be admissible at trial and require that police inform schools of a student’s gang involvement.
“Maryland needs to take a stand against criminal gangs,” bill sponsor Delegate Darryl A. Kelley, D-Prince George’s, told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. “These gangs prey on our most vulnerable citizens, our kids.”
Prosecutors at the hearing and an earlier news conference agreed.
“The definition of gangs in here is the beginning of some comprehensive gang legislation,” said Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly. Guess was killed in Harford County.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said the bill “gives us a tool to deal with gang recruitment in schools. This gives law enforcement the opportunity to go into schools.”
Guess’ son, Shamaar, 20, told lawmakers that his younger brother complains about gang activity in his middle school.
“I’ve had friends afraid for their lives because they’re trying to escape from gangs,” he said.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler said the “bill is no way the panacea to the gang problem,” but that it will help at trial by allowing evidence of gang involvement that is now excluded as prejudicial.
Shamaar’s sister, Michelle Nicole Guess — who said she knew the suspect in her father’s murder — said Thursday that the bill would provide a powerful tool to the threat of violence so often used by gangs.
“If you come to me and tell me there is something wrong, I can do something about that,” said Michelle, 18.
One lawmaker was surprised that threats of violence are currently not crimes.
“I am to understand you can walk up to a person and threaten to beat them to death, and you aren’t guilty of anything under Maryland law?” asked Delegate Herbert McMillan, R-Anne Arundel.
Threats against elected officials are penalized, but threats in general against individuals are not, Ivey’s spokesman Ramon Korionoff said.
“This bill is a good first step,” McMillan said later, adding that he thinks the state needs “more aggressive legislation” like federal racketeering laws.
But a public defender said that the proposed gang laws are not necessary, because current assault laws provide the same protection.
“It wouldn’t have any teeth to begin with,” said John Gunning, the deputy district public defender for Anne Arundel County.
Jacobs, who came to the House committee to support the bill, said the gang legislation is needed and it is needed now.
“We’ve had our heads in the sand with what’s going on in the country,” she said. “It’s coming and if it’s not in your neighborhoods now, it’s coming.”
Guess’s widow, Michelle, said the bill will help.
“My family and I are victims of gang violence,” she said. “I strongly feel something needs to be done concerning this. It will not go away unless we do something.”
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