CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jamaal Hicks' website, where he is selling copies of the DVD. The correct website url is www.32documentarydvd.com. This story was updated Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at 3:11 p.m.
Hamilton County and Chattanooga officials are gathering this week to discuss a federal drug conspiracy case that a local documentary filmmaker says shows racial disparities in sentencing in the criminal justice system.
Jamaal Hicks, whose stage name is Maal The Pimp, is screening his documentary "32" at The Camp House at 149 East M.L King Blvd. on Thursday starting at 6 p.m. The hourlong documentary, available for purchase at www.32documentarydvd.com, centers around a 2013 drug conspiracy case that federal prosecutors brought against 32 black men in Chattanooga. The police chief at the time, Bobby Dodd, referred to the men, some of whom had little to no criminal record, as the "worst of the worst" offenders in the city, and the Times Free Press printed their mugshots on the front page.
But Hicks, who grew up on Chattanooga's Westside and knew many of the accused men, understood there was another side to the story. For the last three years, the self-taught musician and filmmaker reviewed court documents and interviewed the men, their families and members of the media to explain what is now more of a mainstream discussion in criminal justice circles: the unequal sentences and treatment that black men regularly encounter in the legal system.
"The way they were being portrayed, it wasn't about who they were, and it kind of struck a nerve," Hicks said in a recent interview. "It felt like they were racially profiled. Because every race does drugs. But you look at the amount of time they were serving versus Billy Long [the former Hamilton County sheriff] who was caught redhanded with more drugs than these guys. I thought, 'There's no way [Long] can bring this amount of drugs into the city and these guys get more time.' Let me dig a little deeper."
After being convicted of extortion, money laundering, drug and gun charges in 2008, Long was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. He was released six years early on house arrest in 2016 after various appeals. In the 32 case, the men's sentences varied: Some pleaded guilty to five-year sentences, others to 10 years. Some also faced mandatory minimums that could land them in prison for up to 40 years, and the majority who pleaded guilty are not out of custody yet.
Using Long's case as a backdrop, Hicks moves through the timeline of the "Worst of the Worst' case: How it was reported at the time, what local media uncovered about the men's criminal backgrounds, the way prosecutors reportedly interrogated the accused and offered plea deals if they agreed to speak against their co-defendants or wear wires.
Some of these details in Hicks' documentary are commonplace in the criminal legal system, though perhaps shocking to anyone who hasn't encountered it before. Frank White, a musician and father of three who was indicted and sentenced to 128 months, or nearly 13 years, for conspiracy to distribute narcotics, discussed being transferred to the Bradley County Jail after the indictment and being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
Solitary confinement is not uncommon in jails or prisons. The Times Free Press previously reported that Hamilton County jailers placed an 18-year-old autistic boy in solitary confinement for 45 days because they feared he would be attacked in the general population. But the United Nations and other human rights advocates have compared the isolating practice to torture and said it can exacerbate mental health disorders.
In the documentary, White said he believed law enforcement used solitary confinement as a tactic to get him to "break" and agree to testify against his friends and codefendants to escape the dismal conditions. Others, like Joe Jenkins, said prosecutors relied on false identifications, confidential informants and one person's tapped phone line to start investigating anybody close to the situation.
"The thing is, once you get your wiretap, you get to go on a fishing expedition," Jenkins said. "If you listen to somebody's phone call, you will find something not only displeasing but probably illegal."
Chris Poole, an assistant U.S. district attorney who worked on the case, declined to comment Friday but said he'd heard of the documentary and hoped to view it soon.
After a screening and a question-and-answer session with Hicks and his collaborators, there will be a panel session with city and county officials. Hicks said the participants are Lee Mayweather, an officer with the Chattanooga Police Deparment; Demetrus Coonrod, the District 9 city councilwoman; Neal Pinkston, the elected Hamilton County district attorney general; Jackson Whetsel, a Tennessee attorney; and Jenkins, 45, who since has been released after serving a five-year sentence.
That's another thing Hicks touches on in "32" that he wants viewers to understand: These men have been branded "the worst of the worst" for life, even though the few who have been released are working to rehabilitate their lives and help their communities.
Jenkins, for instance, who now works as a crane operator for a company in Jasper, Tenn. and married in October 2018 after his release, speaks at community violence prevention events and is working to create an organization dedicated to youth empowerment and opportunity. Jenkins says he knew he wasn't criminally the "worst of the worst." But while in custody, after a visit with his daughters, he realized that he hadn't given his community good things, either.
"I knew that what I gave to the community was not good," he said. "That what I gave to my children, leaving them to go to prison — yeah, I was the worst. But only in that aspect. And that's why I'm here now: To build up and be constructive where I was once destructive."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.