Suspects arrested in the face-off between a police officer and a hostile crowd in southwest Modesto face charges of "lynching" — a word that's confused many who've read about the case.
Most people think of lynching as a sad reminder from this country's racial history, when white mobs hanged blacks, claiming they were exacting their own form of justice.
That's not what happened about 2 a.m. Sunday, but there are links between lynching as most people imagine it and what Modesto police say happened.
California law defines lynching as an aggressive group removing a person from police custody. Modesto police say people at the confrontation on Pelton Avenue pulled a suspect from the officer's control as the officer was trying to arrest him. Five suspects were arrested on suspicion of lynching.
The charge is a felony that can land someone in prison for two to four years. If a jury finds that the lynching was committed to benefit a criminal street gang, it carries a penalty of up to eight years.
Stanislaus County Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan calls lynching "a tremendous sign of disrespect to the law enforcement community." He said when a gang member commits the crime, it's meant as a show of power that enhances his reputation within the gang.
Standing up to law enforcement also helps the gang spread fear and intimidate law-abiding people, Brennan said.
"Then they can go around and fire AK-47s and deal dope with impunity, without fear that people will call the cops," he said.
That's where the connection with the historical image of lynching comes in.
San Francisco State University history Professor Chris Waldrep, who's written several books on lynching, said the definition of lynching varies from state to state and the crime doesn't always involve racial violence. But most lynching laws have two common elements: There's an unruly crowd, and the act committed is an affront or insult to law enforcement, said Waldrep. Like modern street gangs, racially motivated vigilantes in years past used lynching to spread fear, he said.
The California law against lynching was written in 1933, and its basic wording hasn't changed, Waldrep said. The law is rarely used, he said.
In addition to Sunday's incident, law enforcement officials in Stanislaus County have arrested suspects on suspicion of lynching four times since 1990, said Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley. In those cases, prosecutors ended up filing different charges, such as interfering with a police officer.
The law is so seldom used that there are no jury instructions for lynching, Shipley said. Jury instructions define a crime for the jury and explain what the prosecutor must prove for the defendant to be found guilty.
Modesto defense attorney Martha Carlton-Magaña disputes the idea that lynching is meant to beef up a gang's reputation.
"It's not a common gang-related crime," she said. "It's usually an overly emotional family member in a highly charged arrest situation."
Police say Sunday's confrontation started when the officer and his police dog stopped to break up a fight between a group of people and one man.
The crowd, which ranged from 20 to 60 people, turned on the officer and threatened him, police said. When the officer tried to arrest a man in the crowd, police say, the crowd closed in on the officer, separating him from the suspect.
Other officers who responded to the struggle found the suspect, 18-year-old Alfredo Espinoza, minutes later in a car about two blocks east of the confrontation. Police arrested the driver, another passenger and three others on suspicion of lynching. Espinoza was arrested on suspicion of battery, resisting arrest and battery of a police dog.
One suspect, Andrew Mitchell, denies that he was helping Espinoza evade arrest. He said he was taking Espinoza to the hospital because of wounds suffered in a confrontation with the officer's dog. Police said officers found two radio scanners in the car that Espinoza was riding in; both were operational and tuned to Modesto police emergency dispatch channels.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378.