Loretta Lynch, The Green Dragons and The Limits of Power

Loretta Lynch

Loretta Lynch. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

  • U.S. attorney general cut her teeth on 1992 street-gang case
  • Lessons resonate in era of terrorism, police misconduct

As she confronts the toughest challenge of her career -- the spread of Islamic terrorism to the West -- U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch is drawing on her experience prosecuting a New York City street gang that left murder and mayhem in its wake.

The Green Dragons ruled Chinese neighborhoods in Queens, extorting business owners, kidnapping rivals and killing at least seven people, including a witness. The resulting courtroom clash occurred more than two decades ago, but its lessons still resonate.

Lynch, 56, said she learned the difficulty of coaxing assistance from a mistrustful minority population, similar to her department’s work with Muslim communities today, and the limits of power, as her prosecution ended the crimes of just one gang in a city beset by homicide.

“This case has a lot of the issues that are timely today,” Lynch said in an interview. “Especially so in how not just the Department of Justice, but the government writ large, connects to people who don’t have an automatic sense of connection to it.”

Not even a year into her job as the nation’s top law-enforcement official, Lynch finds herself in a tumultuous period marked by mass shootings, police misconduct and a rising threat of terrorism. A Dec. 2 attack by two terrorists previously unknown to the government that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, has led Lynch’s boss, President Barack Obama, to lean on her agency to recommend new gun-regulation measures.

Through it all, Lynch said she often harks back to a second-floor courtroom in Brooklyn, where, on a brisk and overcast February morning in 1992, the trial against the Green Dragons began.

Preacher’s Daughter

The daughter of a North Carolina preacher and a graduate of Harvard Law School, Lynch had spent six years in private practice before joining the government in search of a new challenge.

Despite the Green Dragons’ reach and brutality, the prosecution generated little publicity for the case.

New York City had tallied more than 4,000 murders over the previous two years, causing the gang’s violence to become commonplace. It also was an era in which more traditional gangsters garnered headlines. As the Green Dragon prosecution began, a battalion of reporters were two floors above, chronicling the trial of infamous mafioso John Gotti.

In more than a year of trial preparation, Lynch and fellow prosecutors Catherine Palmer and Margaret Giordano Friedberg interviewed scores of informants, cooperating gang members and victims’ relatives, documenting the inner workings of the Dragons and the human detritus they left behind.

The toughest witnesses to get on the stand were those with the most to gain: Asian-American restaurant managers and workers who lived in neighborhoods targeted by the gangsters. The employees and residents were either too frightened to help, fearing retaliation from the Green Dragons, or came from cultures in which aiding the authorities led to trouble, the prosecutors said.

Cultural Obstacles

“It literally never occurred to them to call the police. In some instances the owners just didn’t feel the police would care about ethnic Chinese and their concerns and in some instances they were used to it,” Lynch said. Other Asian-American witnesses “were ashamed to come to a government building and talk to us because in their culture being seen going into a government building was a source of shame and it meant or implied that they had done something wrong,” she said.

The Green Dragons were charged with racketeering, murder, kidnapping and extortion, after years spent shaking down Asian-American restaurant owners in Queen’s Chinese neighborhoods. They fought to protect and expand their turf and didn’t hesitate to eliminate anyone who crossed them. “They were psycho killers,” Palmer said.

When nine members of the Green Dragons went on trial, Lynch was a relative rookie, with just two years in the U.S. Attorney’s office.

On one of the trial’s most important days, Lynch learned that several of her witnesses had skipped court. They were waiters who had watched Green Dragons kidnap a 22-year-old woman and her boyfriend from a restaurant. The woman, a witness in a previous court hearing against the Green Dragons, and her boyfriend were later found shot dead.

It turned out that the Green Dragons had threatened the waiters not to show up at the courthouse. When one of them eventually arrived, Lynch asked why he had risked his life. She can still repeat his answer verbatim.

“He said, ‘I had to do it. It was my duty,’” Lynch recalled. “He really felt that it was his obligation as part of moving to America, that he had to testify when asked.”

Confronted by Horror

Other witnesses to the Green Dragons’ crimes required a gentle touch. Over many hours on the phone, Lynch built a bond with the widow of an innocent bystander killed by a stray bullet. Under Lynch’s questioning, the widow testified that she had held her husband after he had been shot.

“His eyes rolled,” the widow said in testimony, “and his color changed, and I figured he died then.”

Lynch cast a glance at the jurors and saw some of them crying.

“It was really moving for me to be dealing with homicide victims for the first time,” Lynch said. “It really brought home what an old colleague of mine said: ‘When you murder a person, you really murder a family.’”

Fellow prosecutors and police detectives said that the case toughened Lynch but also taught her empathy.

“You could tell it changed her,” said Bill Murnane, a former New York City police detective who investigated the Green Dragons. “Here was this quiet daughter of a pastor and she was confronted by this horror.”

Community Outreach

Lynch delivered opening and closing remarks at the trial and with her fellow prosecutors, presented an avalanche of evidence including testimony from a man paralyzed by a stray bullet and phone calls between the gang members intercepted on FBI wiretaps.

The jury deliberated six days before convicting the nine Green Dragons on charges ranging from extortion to murder. All but two were sentenced to life in prison.

Lynch won promotion and eventually was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, a position she held twice, before Obama selected her in November 2014 to become the second attorney general of his administration. Lynch took office in April and now oversees a Justice Department with a $26 billion budget and 116,000 employees, including federal agents and prosecutors.

Following a lesson from her pursuit of the Green Dragons, Lynch said she wants to improve the government’s outreach to minority communities to help authorities investigate everything from police misconduct to terrorism. She sees a strong link between her work persuading Asian-American witnesses to help her in the Green Dragons’ trial and obstacles authorities face in Muslim communities as they seek cooperation in terrorism investigations.

“Trying to break that barrier is a real challenge,” she said.

She sees another lesson from the case that’s also relevant today: the limits of power. Ending the Green Dragons’ threat didn’t mean the end of crime in Queens, though it closed a chapter for the gang’s victims and their families.

“While I was unlikely to clean up Chinatown as a whole,” she said, “I could vindicate some people who had been tremendously, tremendously harmed.”

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