Gang membership becomes focal point of 2013 Lupton City murder trial

Jeremy Reynolds

Hunched over and gripping both sides of the podium Thursday in Hamilton County Criminal Court, the prosecutor asked the police officer a question.

"The defendant in this case, Jeremy Reynolds," prosecutor Kevin Brown began. "Is he a validated gang member?"

"Yes, he is," said Officer Curtis Penney, with the Chattanooga Police Department.

The third day of Reynolds' murder trial veered in a new direction after prosecutors introduced evidence of his participation in the Gangster Disciples.

Gang violence has dominated citywide conversation since April 10, when 22-year-old Robert Jackson was shot to death while leaving the Sky Zoo nightclub. His killing ignited a wave of retaliatory violence, police say, which reached a fever pitch earlier this week when a 17-year-old was killed in a drive-by attack, two pregnant women were shot and nearly died, and a third pregnant woman was stabbed. Police weren't sure if a Thursday shooting on Highway 58 was gang-motivated.

Gang participation will factor into the Reynolds case, too, but in a limited way, Judge Barry Steelman told jurors. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals recently struck down a law that boosts penalties for crimes committed by gang members.

"If you do find the defendant was a member of the gang you may not consider that evidence to prove his disposition to commit such a crime," Steelman said. Essentially, gang membership must only be considered if it provides a window to understand the crime.

Prosecutors say Reynolds, 30, arrived at 3687 Northrop St. on the evening of May 5, 2013, and exchanged fire with 19-year-old Wendell Washington, who lived there with his mother and girlfriend. They called 911 at 10:56 p.m., prosecutors said. But Washington - shot seven times in the chest, arms and back - died later that night.

Prosecutors believe Reynolds had help because, seven minutes after the call, a white SUV rolled into Erlanger hospital's emergency bay. Two men hopped out, carrying a wounded Reynolds into the lobby. On Thursday, prosecutor Kevin Brown connected those men to the Gangster Disciples, one of Chattanooga's largest violent groups.

While cross-examining Penney, Brown slid a paper across the courtroom projector. "Chattanooga Police Department Gang Validation Form," it read.

Officers use a series of factors to validate someone as a gang member and need only 10 points to make the ID. Reynolds had 14 points. Anything lower denotes someone as an associate.

Brown then showed a picture of four men, including Reynolds and fellow validated Gangster Disciples member Deaunte Duncan, who wasn't charged in Washington's death.

Prosecutors say Duncan dropped Reynolds off at Erlanger and passed the alleged murder weapon to Gerald Jackson, another Gangster Disciple sentenced this week to 14 1/2 years in federal prison for attempting to rob the Kennedy Jewelry store in Chattanooga. Police recovered the gun from Jackson three months after Washington's death.

Brown also showed a black-and-white photo of Jackson's tattoo, a six-pointed star that Penney said is often associated with the Gangster Disciples. Brown said he found the photo on Facebook, and asked Penney to read a small line of writing in the right-hand corner.

"In this case," Penney said, "it says, 'All eyes on Sleepy.'"

"You testified that Mr. Reynolds was known as Sleepy?" Brown asked.

"Yes, sir, that's correct."

After the state rested its case Thursday afternoon, attorney John McDougal asked Steelman to acquit his client.

"First off, there's been no proof of any premeditation in this matter," he said. "They have not even placed [Reynolds] at the murder site yet. They say there was a white SUV that had been up there. We submit that was a silver car that brought in Mr. Reynolds.

"Mr. Washington, he is shot," McDougal continued. "Who he is shot by they're unable to say. They say it's Mr. Reynolds. But they don't have any proof. They don't have any fingerprints, any blood, any eyewitnesses. They have nothing to show that he was at the Northrop Street address in the shooting."

McDougal added prosecutors never produced a motive, never offered a theory about why Reynolds would show up and shoot Washington.

After hearing both sides, Steelman said there was evidence: Washington was shot with a .45-caliber firearm; .45-caliber bullets were recovered from the porch; and a police officer who responded to Erlanger hospital found an unspent .45-caliber bullet among Reynolds' belongings. Steelman also noted that doctors removed a .40-caliber bullet from Reynolds, which matched Washington's .40-caliber Glock recovered on the front porch.

He rejected McDougal's motion for acquittal, read the jury instructions, and told attorneys to return tomorrow morning for closing arguments.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at or 423-757-6347 with story ideas or tips. Follow @zackpeterson918.