| Augusta Chronicle
The new district attorney’s decision to review pending gang cases is being met with sighs of relief from some defense lawyers, who see gang cases as headlines without credible evidence.
One of the first major gang charges filed by a Richmond County grand jury in 2017 brought charges against 17 people, several of whom remain in prison without bail. Although the status of the gang was in the books in 2017, it was the first major case of multiple defendants to be presented in Augusta.
Kevin M. Hanna, 30, pleaded not guilty in the 2017 case, which his lawyer criticizes for lack of substance. Lawyer Jacque Hawk filed a new bail motion for Hanna, who spent most of the past five years in prison waiting for a trial that could take months, if not more.
Prosecutor Jared Williams said he is reviewing gang cases to ensure that everyone has solid evidence of every element of a crime that must be proven to obtain a conviction, and that the alleged criminal act is related to gang activity.
Williams said he believes that people should be prosecuted if they commit a criminal act, not because of the people they associate with. “It is not enough just to have a hunch.”
Sgt. Caleb Lee, public information officer at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, said the trial of the cases is an issue that his department transfers to Williams.
Natalie Paine, who led the police before Williams, said she would not have brought a case to the grand jury if there was no cause.
“I did not bring cases to the grand jury that failed to meet the threshold. I had prosecutors and specialized investigators in my office, including me, who had extensive training,” she said.
“Gangs infest our city and steal the innocence and future of our young people. I was committed to using one of the best anti-gang statutes in our country to fight these criminal companies and that is exactly what we did,” said Paine.
Lawyer Titus Nichols claims that one of his clients was caught on a 170-count charge because an unknown person allegedly told investigators that he was a gang leader. Nichols said he saw no evidence that Jacques Perry, 33, who lives in Atlanta, knew of several crimes listed in the prosecution, let alone participated in any way.
Perry and the 21 others are accused of not only violating the state’s Street Gang and Terrorism Prevention Act, but also the Racket Organizers’ Corruption and Influence Act. The RICO law is designed to target those who don’t get their hands dirty, but are still closely involved in criminal acts, said Nichols.
But using RICO in Perry’s case is like trying a gang member in Atlanta for a crime committed by a gang member in Chicago, or trying a drug user for drug trafficking, he said.
The gang law can be just as exaggerated as by contaminating the accused with the “gang” label, said Nichols. If there were three white men from Columbia County showing signs of gangs, no one would think about it, but three black men in East Augusta are automatically considered gang members, he said.
Even if someone is a member of a gang, that is not a crime, said Nichols. The prosecutor still needs to prove that he not only committed a crime, but did it on behalf of a gang.
In the case of 2017, the acts underlying the RICO collection list four for Hanna, three of which involve the use of hand signals.
According to the prosecution, Hanna is reportedly a member of a gang known as Loyalty About Everything. He is accused along with two others of a fatal shooting on February 8, 2014 on the Bobby Jones Expressway, but the alleged witness denied his statement, claims Hanna’s lawyer, Hawk.
A theft victim also retracted his allegations against Hanna, and a witness that Hanna is accused of illegally influencing testified under oath that Hanna did not say or do anything to him, Hawk argued in his motion.
Denzell Samuel, 25, has been in custody for a total of 15 months since he was arrested with three other people after a pound of marijuana was allegedly found in the vehicle in which he was a passenger. Samuel is accused of violating gang law, a crime punishable by a minimum sentence of five years in prison.
But, according to his lawyer, Scott Connell, there is no evidence in the discovery he provided that says Samuel is a gang member. There is a gang connection with a person listed in the discovery with the same name, but the birth date and Social Security number listed do not belong to your client, Connell said this week at a bail hearing.
In another bail hearing on Monday, attorney Daniel Franck told the judge that Antonio Sheppard, 21, is charged with six counts of violating gang law, all based on the allegation that he had a stolen gun in his pocket in 8 November 2019. The charges lack substance, Franck said.
The prosecutor said he is reviewing gang cases to ensure that criticism of gang cases is not a legitimate issue in any pending cases.