A controversial gang statute has been used in at least 60 cases prosecuted in Knox County, TN, since its inception in 2012. The statute boosts the penalties for individuals accused of being members of gangs, and has been used to coerce defendants into guilty pleas. However, last week, the gang law was ruled unconstitutional in the Court of Criminal Appeals. Appellate Judge Timothy Easter wrote, “Nearly all gang enhancement statutes in this country contain specific language limiting the reach of those statutes only to offenses that possess a nexus to a defendant’s gang affiliation, and therefore, a defendant’s own criminal conduct.”
In a case of irony, the case that the ruling is based on involved definite gang violence. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports:
Jonathan Dyer was a teenage member of the Five Deuce Hoover Crips street gang in May 2012 when fellow gang members Devonte Bonds, Thomas Bishop and Jason Sullivan paid a visit to his home in the Arbor Place Apartments on Townview Drive, according to the appellate opinion.
Dyer, according to the opinion, failed to put money into the jail commissary account of another gang member who insisted he was Dyer’s “big homie,” or handler. Dyer insisted the jailed Five Deuce Hoover Crip was not, in fact, his “big homie” so he refused to contribute to the commissary account. Bonds, Bishop and Sullivan believed otherwise and decided Dyer would be kicked out of the gang via a formal ceremony known in gang parlance as a “beat out,” similar to the “beat in” gang initiation rite of passage. In both instances, fellow gang members beat their compadre for a set amount of time, usually two to 10 minutes.
Dyer was beaten so badly he was in a coma for nine days. Bonds, Bishop and Sullivan were convicted in a trial before Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee of attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault for the beating. Prosecutors TaKisha Fitzgerald and Phil Morton, who head up DA Allen’s gang unit, used the gang enhancement law to boost the trio’s penalty ranges.
Bonds wound up with a 23-year sentence while Bishop and Sullivan, both of whom have much more extensive criminal records, received sentences of 37 years and 40 years, respectively.
The defendants’ attorneys appealed the rulings, citing the constitutionality of the gang law, among other things. Though the court upheld the convictions, due to overwhelming evidence to support wrongdoing, it did find that the boosted sentences could not stand, since the law was not in accordance with the Constitution. Even though the defendants’ crime met the standards, “Good facts, the court held, don’t negate bad law.”
If the overturning of the gang law stands, new sentencing hearings will be scheduled for those who have had sentences boosted and those in the process of appealing, in Knox County. However, those who entered guilty pleas in attempts to circumvent gang enhancements will probably not be resentenced. Since the gang enhancement law has been used regularly elsewhere in the state (Chattanooga, Nashville, Memphis), hundreds of cases could be affected.
The News Sentinel reports further:
The court noted the law pushed by prosecutors and police was passed with good intent — to seek to quell gang violence — but was crafted so poorly it could apply to a member of a college fraternity. Like street gangs, fraternities use color schemes and symbols to show affiliation, and its members sometimes commit crimes that meet the law’s overly broad definition of “gang-related crime,” the court stated. The law defines “gang-related crime” as any offense in which a person either hurts or kills someone or threatens to hurt or kill someone while committing a crime. Hazing, the court noted, could qualify.