Cook: Sticking up for Jimmy Gaines

Cook: Sticking up for Jimmy Gaines

February 7th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the hyper-punitive charges against Jimmy Gaines, the 25-year-old with a heart of gold who now faces felony jail time for 50 words of frustration.

Here's what you said about what Jimmy said.

"We love that boy," emailed a family friend.

"The sweetest," said the daughter of a cancer survivor Gaines works with at a local YMCA.

"I have contacted people from Montana to Mass[achusetts] to Idaho that say they are committed to pray for this unjust situation," emailed one woman.

Adventists across America shared the story online. His elementary school principal called. Family friends, classmates, strangers, all saying the same:

"People are on Jimmy's side," one woman emailed. "And so is God!"

Last month, Gaines walked into the admissions office at Chattanooga State to re-enroll in college to become what he believes is his life's calling.

"A teacher," he said.

After dropping out of Southern Adventist in 2009 when his dad got sick, Gaines had been saving paychecks ever since, waiting for the day he could pay off his $8,000 loan so Southern would release his transcript and he could enroll at Chattanooga State.

But that fateful day, everything got lost in the paperwork jungle of loan companies, withheld transcripts and slow-moving mail. So Gaines -- put yourself in his shoes -- said something he shouldn't have. He joked about a gun and a bomb, and as soon as he heard the words fly out of his mouth, he wished he could swallow them forever.

So he apologizes. Immediately.

"As soon as I said it," Gaines remembers.

Gaines had been speaking to an admissions officer, a woman he said he'd met with multiple times, a woman he recalls joking with in that humble, easy-going Gaines way.

He left. She called police. They immediately and correctly put Southern on lock down, canvassing the campus with SWAT teams while other officers flooded the local Y, putting Gaines in handcuffs, taking him to jail and introducing him to the FBI.

Gaines said the FBI realized this was a nonthreat; even Gaines' girlfriend -- as FBI agents procedurally searched her home for bombs -- said they told her this was something of a misunderstanding.

But not Hamilton County.

So why on earth is Hamilton County pressing felony charges? Why does Hamilton County's judgment -- they want to lock him up for three years or longer -- supersede that of the FBI -- which did not press charges?

It is absurdist logic, and quite frightening. With this as their pattern, officers can arrest and charge any of us for an off-hand comment made, overheard and reported, even without a snip of evidence that it's more than empty syllables.

The whole thing makes me so mad I could explode! So mad I could punch somebody!

(Wait, wait! I didn't mean that! No explosions here. Just a joke. A teeny, tiny joke.)

There's hope that common sense and mercy will win out. Gaines' first court appearance was moved from yesterday to March 6 at 8:30 in Hamilton County General Sessions Court, and his case may wind up in the hands of executive assistant district attorney Neil Pinkston, which could be a good thing.

Pinkston, who's running for DA, would have a fine chance to show Hamilton County the wisdom, mercy and clarity he'd bring to this position by seeing the charges against Gaines for what they really are.

"Outrageous," one reader said.

Rather beautifully, most of the support for Gaines is coming from Southern Adventist.

"It's pretty widespread that people are sticking up for Jimmy," said Daniel Glassford, a nursing student.

Wednesday afternoon, he and a few classmates created a petition on Jimmy's behalf. He posted it on Facebook.

"It spread like wildfire," he said.

Around 10 p.m., there were 500 signatures.

"We were getting signatures every 45 seconds," Glassford said. Thursday afternoon, it was pushing 800 signatures.

(You can view it at ipetitions.com/petition/jimmysrelease).

Such merciful activism seems to be the ethos at Southern; it is quite moving to hear the campus that endured the most from his jokes is now the place most in his corner.

One woman from Southern who called saw the solution quite clearly.

"Grace," she said.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.