Updated at 11:18 p.m. on Friday, April 27, 2018.
About 44 people charged in the state's groundbreaking gang racketeering indictment were appointed legal counsel Friday and pleaded not guilty before a judge. Now, it's just a matter of figuring out their individual roles in the alleged conspiracy.
"Please do not use the telephones at the jail," defense attorney Zak Newman told his client, Johnny Clemons Jr. "Calls are monitored, they are recorded."
Clemons is one of 54 people that prosecutors say belong to the Athens Park Bloods, a street gang responsible for dealing illegal drugs, committing robberies and arson, lying to authorities about their crimes, and using proceeds from their illegal activities to bail other members out of jail.
Last month, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston charged all of them with a Class B felony that carries a sentence of 12-20 years in prison for conspiring to further the gang's objectives through fraudulent business dealings. Another seven also face murder charges, and possibly the death penalty, in four previously unsolved homicides.
Before any of that happens, every defendant needs to be represented by an attorney, plead guilty or not guilty to the allegations, and then receive evidence from prosecutors. Early Friday, 18 defendants on bond walked up to the third floor of the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts building, passed through a specially assembled security checkpoint, and took their turns appearing before Judge Tom Greenholtz.
Some wore work clothes. Others asked for excuse notes to give their employers. Friends and relatives packed into the gallery. Another 25 or so defendants who are in Hamilton County Jail and Silverdale Detention Center appeared on a video camera to speak with Greenholtz.
According to records in the Criminal Court Clerk's Office, about nine defendants still haven't been served with a copy of the allegations against them.
During Friday's arraignment, a few defendants seemed confused by what was happening. "Where's my preliminary hearing? Don't I get a preliminary hearing?" Charles Shelton asked. He is one of three men charged in the 2016 kidnapping and murder of Bianca Horton, a 26-year-old mother who testified against Cortez Sims the year before.
While some defendants already had attorneys, most couldn't afford representation and needed appointments. Because numerous local defense attorneys say they've been conflicted out of the case, lawyers from civil firms have stepped up to the plate. Since the indictment earlier this month, Greenholtz has assembled a legal group spanning Hamilton, Bradley, McMinn and Marion counties.
"My reaching out is to smooth out the process," Greenholtz said. "I have 18 up for bond, five at Silverdale Detention Center and 21 at the jail."
Most of the defendants will next appear in court July 30. In the meantime, their attorneys are going to gather as much evidence as possible from prosecutors about their clients' roles in the conspiracy case. Some attorneys began filing requests with the court Friday afternoon for a full witness list and any evidence that would be helpful to their clients.
Right now, everyone is being tried together. But everyone's alleged role in the gang varies. Defense attorneys are expected to start filing motions to separate their clients from the lumped-together proceedings.
"There's some people who are extremely low on the totem pole and some people who are extremely high on the totem pole," said Chattanooga defense attorney Josh Weiss, who is representing Sims, the 20-year-old convicted of killing Talitha Bowman in a shooting in College Hill Courts in 2015 that also paralyzed a baby. In this racketeering indictment, Sims is also charged with the 2014 homicide of 13-year-old Deontray Southers.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.