In an hours-long, contentious hearing Monday morning, Hamilton County prosecutors moved to continue with a preliminary hearing in the July killing of 28-year-old Tracy Calloway, despite all four defendants attempting to waive their rights to the hearing.
Antonio Watkins, 25; Gary Cross, 23; Prandel Reid Jr., 25; and Jamichael Smith, 26, are each charged with first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy, unlawful possession of a firearm, possession of a firearm during commission of a felony, and reckless endangerment.
A preliminary hearing simply details the facts of the case, and it's up to a judge to decide whether there is probable cause that the defendants committed the crime. If there is, the case is sent to a grand jury that then will decide if there is enough evidence for a criminal indictment.
Defendants have the right to waive their preliminary hearing and have their case go straight to a grand jury. In cases like this, "the magistrate shall promptly bind the defendant over to the grand jury," according to Rule 5 of Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure. However, under a 2015 statute, a preliminary hearing "may not be waived by the defendant if the state makes a timely objection, for good cause shown, to the defendant's request for waiver."
That was the basis of the state's argument to move forward with the hearing.
Prosecutors argued the preliminary hearing was necessary in order to preserve the testimony of a special witness who has had to relocate based on concern for his life because of the defendants' involvement with the Gangster Disciples. Chattanooga police had to escort the witness into court just to testify, prosecutors said.
The witness, who was present at the time of the shooting, has received threats, including a warning that there is a $40,000 bounty on his head, he testified Monday morning.
"This is a specific reason for the 2015 statute, so that the state may preserve testimony" of witnesses in cases that are high risk, prosecutors argued.
"It is not uncommon for gang members to seek out retribution on victims or witnesses because they cooperate with the Chattanooga police or [with prosecutors], and in fact, it has happened in this very county," Assistant District Attorney Cameron Williams said, referring to the 2016 killing of state's witness Bianca Horton.
But all four defense attorneys disagreed and asked for evidence of the alleged threats, arguing that it would create a "slippery slope" if witnesses can claim they fear for their safety in every case of a significant nature.
A brief hearing was held in that matter, during which the witness testified to receiving second- or third-hand threats via social media because of his cooperation with investigators.
Judge Lila Statom found the state had met its burden of filing a "timely objection" and showing "good cause," and the preliminary hearing was held.
The witness testified to much of what was already recorded in initial court documents.
A home's surveillance camera, footage of which was shown in court, picked up a portion of the shooting. The video shows a minivan stopped in the middle of the road and another silver vehicle cuts around the van and stops in front of it.
Two people then get out of the passenger side of the minivan, one of whom is armed with a rifle-style firearm. Several shots are then heard.
After the shooting ceases on the video, the people get back into the minivan and flee the scene.
Calloway's vehicle was littered with bullet holes, and a Chattanooga police investigator said 70 or more shell casings were found at the scene. A motive wasn't discussed in court on Monday.
By the end of the hearing, Statom bound all four cases over to a grand jury. It may take up to 12 weeks for a grand jury to hear the cases.
Police Chief David Roddy has previously said that at least some of July's shootings were part of an ongoing gang dispute, though police haven't confirmed whether Calloway's killing was connected to any of those shootings.
The dispute dates back to 2016 and now is primarily between the Gangster Disciples and the Kemp Drive Posse — a neighborhood subset comprised of Skyline and Tree Top Pirus, and even some Gangster Disciples, as well, according to police.
City council member Demetrus Coonrod previously noted an increase in shootings since the release from jail of a high-ranking member of the Gangster Disciples. Neither she nor police confirmed who the gang member was, but she may have been referencing Watkins, who police say is a Gangster Disciple and was released on June 29.
Watkins was arrested earlier this year after a grand jury indicted him in connection to the attempted homicide of a 31-year-old woman in 2016.
He had been released on a $95,000 bond on June 29 of this year, according to Hamilton County Criminal Court.
Calloway was killed on July 21.