MS-13 gang Josue Portillo Life sentence for organised killings four teenagers

55-year term for 15-year-old MS-13 gang killer

A U.S. court of appeal has upheld a 55-year prison sentence for an MS-13 gang member who organized the killing of four teenagers in New York's Long Island Park when he was 15.

The court also expressed disappointment that ending the parole for federal inmates means he has no opportunity to change.

A jury of the second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Josue Portillo's 19-year-old conviction as a "classic illustration of the unfortunate consequences" of a Legislative decision eliminating parole for federal inmates convicted in or after 1987.

A member of MS-13 flashes the sign of his gang
A member of MS-13 flashes the sign of his gang

The decision, written by Judge Jon Newman, said Congress' desire to end sentencing disparities and send a message to the public that inmates would complete almost all their terms was not accomplished, partially because the public gets a muddled message as most state courts still give parole.

The second Circuit Court said that parole can empower Portillo to follow prison rules, obtain education, engage in recovery programs, and mature to a point where he can enter society.

In a statement, Joseph Ryan Jr., Portillo's counsel, said the second Circuit Court "wrongly decided" that the sentence was sufficient, meaning Portillo would cost taxpayers over US$2 million (A$2.7 million) to hold him behind bars until he's released and deported to El Salvador at age 71.

In the April 2017 massacre, Portillo pleaded guilty after preparing it for weeks because he was upset that a teenager who was not an MS-13 member had flashed the gang's emblem and behaved as if he were, prosecutors said.

In a memorandum, prosecutors said Portillo arranged for two gang mates to lure him to a Central Islip park where more than a dozen MS-13 members were waiting to target the teenager and four members of a rival gang he had brought with him.

The teenager who was initially shot fled over a fence, but the others were killed by members of the MS-13 gang wielding knives, machetes, axes and clubs made of tree limbs, prosecutors wrote.

The court of appeal agreed that the crime was "especially heinous," and Portillo deliberately participated in the killings and organized the crime in revenge for a minor grievance.

Yet the case also said, "Illustrates the unfortunate consequences of eliminating parole."

Long Island was particularly affected by the involvement of MS-13, with hundreds of murders attributed to the organization known as La Mara Salvatrucha, which recruits youth from El Salvador and Honduras since January 2016.

Abuse, including the 2016 killing of two teenage girls in Brentwood, led to congressional hearings and a visit to Long Island by President Donald Trump, who seemed to respond specifically to the Portillo case saying MS-13 members "have transformed peaceful parks in beautiful neighborhoods into blood-stained killing grounds."

For Portillo, prosecutors called for a 60-year term, alleging violence and detailed execution-style killings preparation.

"Not only was the defendant's conduct extremely serious, it was evil," they wrote.

They also gave a grim evaluation of Portillo's future change, saying he was involved in two violent jailhouse attacks, faced disciplinary problems at high school, and committed the massacre while attending therapy to escape gang activity, abuse, and criminal detention.

In a defense submission, lawyers identified the mostly unsupervised childhood of their client and wrote that Portillo told a psychiatrist he joined the gang to gain attention and access to friends, women and marijuana.

They persuaded a judge to refuse a life-in-prison recommendation from the Probation Department, saying they could find no case in which a 17-year-old was sentenced to life for killing at age 15.

It’s one of Trump’s favorite talking points: how the gang MS-13 is taking advantage of loose immigration laws and spreading violence and drugs. But is the gang really invading the country, and is it a growing problem? In our latest Vox + ProPublica collaboration, we break down all the talk about MS-13 and separate fact from fiction.