A case that began as a deftly publicized strike against Oakland gangs ended quietly Friday with the sentencing of two alleged members of the Acorn gang.
Elijah Thomas and Marc Anthony Candler may spend the rest of their lives in prison for the attempted murder in 2006 of Jermel Holloway, an alleged member of the rival Ghosttown gang.
In a courtroom devoid of the once ubiquitous television lights, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Thomas Reardon sentenced both men to maximum sentences of life in prison. With gang enhancements, Thomas received a minimum of 40 years and Candler 48 years in prison.
The two men were originally arrested in 2008 as a result of the Oakland Police Department’s “Operation Nutcracker,” a three-month-long, high-profile investigation that netted the arrests of 54 alleged members of the Acorn gang.
Holloway’s shooting stemmed from an argument over a stolen car. In response to a threat, police say Candler and Thomas drove to the intersection of 31st Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Ghosttown where Holloway and about 30 others were congregating and fired more than 40 shots, striking several homes and Holloway in the legs. Holloway was treated at the hospital and released.
Holloway testified that Candler did not shoot him.
After his arrest, police dubbed Candler the leader of the gang, a point of contention between the prosecution and defense.
Prosecutors showed jurists video clips from “Hood 2 Hood,” a “blockumentary” about Oakland featuring Candler, who is shown promoting violence prevention while also showing off a gun, snorting cocaine and counting his bullet wounds. They played some of Candler’s rap music and showed photographs of Oakland men throwing up gang signs. Thomas and Candler were featured in a handful of the photographs.
Under California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act, such evidence allowed Reardon to add years to the two men’s sentences. But the defense attorneys argued the evidence was questionable and “prejudicial,” and did not convincingly establish Candler and Thomas as members of a gang. Furthermore, they argued the shooting had nothing to do with gang membership but was the result of a personal dispute over the car.
“He just flooded this jury with gangs. We’ve got day after day, picture after picture, movies, CDs. A lot of those pictures, we don’t even know when they were taken. Ninety percent of them, Mr. Candler wasn’t even in,” said Candler’s attorney James Giller. “That was overkill and an effort to prejudice this jury.”
Speaking before the sentencing, Candler also denied his gang membership, describing his leadership in the community and his efforts to thwart street violence. But he seemed resigned to a lengthy sentence.
"There's so much propaganda going on with OPD and the newspaper," he said. "No disrespect to you; you gotta do your job. I'm not really looking for leniency. It is what it is. I'll be back."
Debate about the nature and reality of gangs in Oakland persisted throughout the trial and continued Friday morning when Reardon, after denying the motions for a new trial and dispensing the sentences, mused on the logic behind gangs to the attorneys, the two men and a roomful of their family and friends.
“You know, you sit here as I’ve done now for 12 years – 22 total in this building – and you see a lot of crime and misery and sadness,” Reardon said. “And then, there’s this gang stuff.”
“It’s a very primitive need we all have to identify with some cause, to rally around some flag or label. And the truth is, no matter what we do, we’re all gonna die. So how do I get past the fact that all this is gonna come to an end?”
“I don’t have a whole lot else in my life to think about. I haven’t done a lot of reading, or gotten an education, or done something with my life that is productive, that is helpful to other people. To people of all colors. So we somehow tell ourselves, well, at least I’m not her. At least I’m not him. At least I wear these clothes. I have this car.”
A frustrated Thomas leaned forward in his chair and propped his chin on a fist. Candler fidgeted, silently laughed and sometimes balked as the judge continued:
“It helps us psychologically get through the day. But what happens is, people get shot and killed over it. And it’s nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense. We hear about this happening all the time, just because some knucklehead wore blue instead of red or looked at him clockwise or lives a couple blocks away,” Reardon said.
After the hearing, family and friends poured out of the doors, some wiping away tears. Thomas, 26, has no prior convictions. Candler, 35, grew up in Maxwell Park in East Oakland and has seven children.
“I just can’t believe that this happened to my cousin. He’s such a good person. If he saw someone on the side of the road, he was the type of person to pull over and help him. He was always there for his family,” said a woman who identified herself only as Misty.
Candler’s brother, Cory Jefferies, comforted Candler’s oldest daughter and said he wasn’t surprised by the sentence. He said Reardon wasn’t completely wrong.
“It’s kind of a like Jerry Springer’s final thought. What he’s saying is really 100 percent true from a generic standpoint. That’s sociology, so he’s right,” he said. “But I don’t think what he’s saying applies to this case specifically.”