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Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher listens to proceedings in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom on Monday afternoon.

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Inmates listen to proceedings in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom on Monday afternoon.
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Judge Barry Steelman asks an inmate if he was served with paperwork like this in his courtroom on Monday afternoon.
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CPD gang validation forms

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For nearly five hours in a packed courtroom, witness after witness relayed the same message: East Lake is a hub of criminal activity, thanks to 31 men who belong to violent gangs.

Despite objections from defense attorneys who wanted more time to prepare, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman wanted the hearing to continue so that witnesses wouldn't have to return.

His only stipulation: The witness testimony couldn't specifically discuss the 31 accused men named in Hamilton County's first-of-its-kind "gang injunction."

"I want to give the attorneys who represent the defendants time to review all the exhibits, to consider all the testimony today, and to think about the issues related to the matter," Steelman said before setting the next court date on Oct. 31 at 10:30 a.m.

By making the Gangster Disciples and the Grape Street Crips a public nuisance, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston's petition aims to discourage the 31 men as gang members from participating in criminal gang activity within a nearly 2-mile swath of East Lake.

If approved, the petition would levy a $50 fine and 30 days of jail time for any targeted man who violates 11 listed activities, most of which are already illegal, Pinkston said last week when he filed it. Those activities include owning graffiti equipment, drinking alcohol, possessing guns and drugs, signaling the arrival of police, and hanging out with other accused gang members.

Though Pinkston argues the "gang injunction" would give law enforcement another tool to make East Lake safer, defense attorneys counter that it would open the door to illegal police seizures and run afoul of people's First Amendment rights to association.

During Monday's hearing, Steelman started with a role call to determine who showed up to defend themselves. Courtroom officers brought in six men who were already in jail and seated them in a row. One man who went to court earlier in the day refused to return for the hearing. A second who was served in the Tennessee Department of Correction couldn't attend. And a third man was in Bradley County on a federal hold.

Another four or five men who weren't in custody came to court.

Their defense attorneys stayed for the entire hearing, focusing mostly on whether any prior criminal history was related to gang activity; whether the police attempts to validate people as gang members were legitimate; whether the community members who testified knew any of their clients personally; whether authorities could serve gangs like structured corporations; and, consequently, whether there was any proof that accused men held any leadership or managerial positions within the gangs.

Hank Hill, who is representing Norman Williams, an accused member of the Gangster Disciples, focused on weekly gang meetings and the criteria that police use to validate someone as a member.

"When was the last weekly meeting he went to?" Hill asked Curtis Penney, an officer with the Chattanooga Police Department who has experience doing social media investigations on local gangs.

Penney said he didn't know because officers usually rely on confidential informants for that data, however, records placed Williams at his last meeting in 2011. When Hill asked for evidence that showed Williams' gang activity in the last five years, Pinkston pointed to three separate validation forms.

To validate someone as a gang member, officers use a points process. Tattoos, self-admittance, and associating with other gang members are all weighed differently, and a person only needs 10 points. Anything less means you're associated.

"Do you know how old Mr. Williams was when he picked up his most significant charges for robberies and burglaries?" Hill asked Penney. The officer said he didn't.

He was 17, said Hill.

The attorney also asked how his client's criminal cases for possessing marijuana or trespassing proved any kind of gang leadership.

That became a central theme Monday because defense attorneys say the petition tries to treat gangs like corporations. But because the state doesn't have a mailing address for these gangs, the petition argues that serving a high-ranking gang member would help word travel.

In addition to Penney, Pinkston painted a picture of the violence in the East Lake region by playing seven videos of drive-by shootings and calling police officers, investigators, and community and business members who discussed the impact of gang activity.

Kimberly George, of the Salvation Army, talked about area children who didn't get any sleep because of nightly shootings and all-hour drug deals. Though she couldn't name any explicit gangs or people, she said the kids were surrounded by crime.

As a mother, George said, it would be heartbreaking to think her children "weren't being fed properly, getting sleep, or fearing for their life."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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