Ron Safer remembers the day a judge handed Gangster Disciples leader Larry Hoover a life sentence in 1998, and the way the federal lock-up “clanged” behind Hoover while Hoover’s family watched from the courtroom.
Safer had helped prosecute Hoover, who ran a monolithic street gang from inside an Illinois prison. “I remember feeling justice had been done,” Safer told the Chicago Sun-Times Tuesday. But he added, “There was no joy in that.”
Roughly a quarter century later, another door has swung shut on Hoover — at least, for now. U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber Tuesday denied a bid from Hoover for a sentencing break under the First Step Act, a law signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2018. Leinenweber previously made comments suggesting he was open to the idea.
But in a long-awaited 19-page order, Leinenweber referred to the 70-year-old Hoover as “one of the most notorious criminals in Illinois history.” And though the judge wrote that Hoover’s life sentence at the federal “supermax” prison in Colorado is “particularly grim,” he said that he’s concerned about “an active risk of harm” if Hoover were ultimately freed.
“Hoover is renowned and celebrated to this day by the Gangster Disciples,” Leinenweber wrote. “To the extent that any one person can deter another to commit crimes, Hoover’s life imprisonment symbolically demonstrates that the rule of law reaches even those in power who seem untouchable.”
The judge issued his order without prejudice, meaning Hoover has an opportunity to try again. Hoover’s attorney, Justin Moore, called that “extremely rare.”
“I don’t think this is a ruling that closes the door for Larry Hoover to be released,” Moore said.
Moore noted that Hoover is serving his sentence in isolation and can do little more than read books.
“How do we explain to the court the oppressive conditions he’s in?” Moore said. He asked, “Are prisons used to rehabilitate inmates or in a punitive fashion?”
Among other things, the First Step Act allows federal prisoners to seek reductions in their sentences for selling crack cocaine, based on lower penalties that were enacted in 2010.
Safer has supported previous decisions by Leinenweber to release co-defendants of Hoover’s under the First Step Act. But he said, “There are some crimes that are so heinous that mercy conflicts with justice.” And he said Leinenweber was “right on the money” when he described Hoover as one of Illinois’ most notorious criminals.
Hoover “ran a gang from prison that was responsible for the highest murder rate this city has ever seen, a drug network that was pervasive and efficient, and an organization that controlled parks and street corners in neighborhoods and made it impossible for children to go outside and be children,” Safer said.
Still, the former federal prosecutor said, “It’s sad. He’s a human being.”
Leinenweber’s ruling landed almost a year to the day after U.S. Attorney John Lausch made a rare personal plea, asking the judge during a hearing not to re-sentence Hoover. He said it would be a “miscarriage of justice to reduce (Hoover’s) sentence in any way, shape or form.”
Six months later, a grand jury indictment unsealed in East St. Louis suggested Hoover had promoted two men to top posts in the gang while locked up in the “supermax” — a point Leinenweber noted in his ruling. That indictment did not charge Hoover with a crime.
Hoover ordered a murder in 1973 that led to his conviction in state court and a sentence of 150 to 200 years in Illinois’ prison system. There, the feds say he ran a $100 million-a-year drug business as tens of thousands of gang soldiers continued to work for him in Chicago and other cities.
A federal investigation then led to Hoover’s conviction for running a criminal enterprise. Leinenweber gave Hoover a life sentence in 1998 at the end of a hearing that prompted a finger-pointing confrontation between the two men. Leinenweber told Hoover the charisma he used to gain the loyalty of thousands was proof he could have been a great man.
“You misused a great gift that you received from God,” Leinenweber told Hoover that day.
Still, when Leinenweber heard arguments about Hoover’s First Step Act request from Lausch and others on July 16, 2020, Leinenweber seemed most concerned with whether Illinois’ prison system could handle Hoover — and he never rejected the idea of a sentencing break.
Authorities later said arrangements had been made for Hoover to serve the rest of his state murder sentence in the federal prison system should his federal sentence be undone. But prosecutors also expressed concern that Hoover would next launch legal attacks on his murder sentence, ultimately leading to his freedom.