Numerous defendants and their loved ones have worked with Community Defense of East Tennessee (CDET) as they’ve made their way through the court system. Here are some of their stories.
Marian Winton participates in the weekly meetings that Community Defense of East Tennessee holds for the loved ones of individuals who are caught up in the criminal court system, but the support that she both receives and gives to other participants goes beyond that.
Winton says that she feels like she has gained a new family through her involvement with the program.
Winton first became connected with CDET in August of 2020. She had been trying to help a friend of hers navigate the criminal justice system, but they seemed to run into complications at every turn. Fortunately, she ended up talking to Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie about the situation, and McKenzie told her about the work that CDET does.
Helping her friend pay legal costs has caused Winton to fall behind on bills, including her house payments. She is fearful that by helping her friend she may end up losing her house.
Winton also expressed frustration with the attitude that the judge has shown in the courtroom. She said that she’s heard him joking around with attorneys about the people facing charges in his court, and in light of those comments it’s hard for her to believe he can be a dispassionate judge of the facts.
In her friend’s case, she was perturbed to hear a prosecutor remark that even though her friend is seeking treatment, he should have done that the first time that he was charged instead of waiting until now.
“People become ready to start treatment at their own pace, not the pace that others think that they should. When someone is finally ready to enter treatment, the court should encourage that person to do so, and make changes in sentencing so that the person will actually start recovery and stop endlessly cycling through the courtroom and jails,” Winton said.
Since becoming involved in CDET, Winton has found a family of people to support her through this process. The group has also helped her find a better attorney for her friend, and she’s become more knowledgeable about changes in the criminal justice system.
One such change is the Alternatives to Incarceration Act that was recently signed by Governor Bill Lee. Winton is hopeful that by pointing out the changes that went into effect July 1 to the judge, he will become more willing to consider placing her friend in treatment instead of incarcerating him.
Among other changes, the act encourages judges to “strongly consider sentencing alternatives for persons with behavioral health needs or chemical dependence” and “authorizes judges to order a defendant who is eligible for a sentencing alternative to participate in a day reporting center program in lieu of incarceration… for moderate to high-risk offenders with a substance abuse issue or co-occurring mental health issue.”
Although it received relatively little attention in the local media, the case of Reggie Wilson has had an outsized impact on those working locally for criminal justice reform.
On October 15, 2015, Knoxville Police Department officers were responding to a call about a burglary in progress at a house on East Moody Avenue. Instead of going immediately to the address of the burglary, officers saw Wilson (a Black man) parked in his car by his apartment building. Although Wilson’s apartment was 400 yards away from where the burglary reportedly occurred, the offices said the parked vehicle was suspicious and decided to investigate, court records show.
What happened next has been the subject of two criminal trials. The officers claimed he tried to drive away and then resisted arrest; he claimed he never resisted. Wilson ended up with injuries to his head that required staples from where he was bashed into the side of a police car hard enough to break a tooth and cut his mouth, according to court records.
Wilson, a Navy veteran and barber, was charged with aggravated assault and two counts of resisting arrest. He maintained his innocence from the beginning, and after refusing a plea deal he finally was brought to trial in 2018. A jury acquitted him on the aggravated assault charge but convicted him of resisting arrest, a misdemeanor.
Wilson appealed and, in 2019, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed his conviction and sent the case back for a retrial.
CDET, which had been working with Wilson for several years, helped organize protests and urged citizens to call Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen to encourage her to drop the charges against Wilson. The DA’s Office, however, brought Wilson back to trial for resisting arrest three months ago. At the re-trial, the jury acquitted him of wrongdoing.
Although Wilson’s case could be considered a victory, it was a costly one. It took six years’ worth of court appearances, plenty of legal costs and the psychological stress of knowing he could make it all go away simply by taking a plea deal.
To this day, Wilson says he remains fearful any time he sees a police car that it might be his attackers.
Terrell Johnson was arrested in July of 2006 on cocaine trafficking charges and was ultimately convicted of selling one-half gram of cocaine within 1000 feet of a public park. which made him subject to the state’s “drug free zone” enhancements. He has been incarcerated at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City since 2009 and doesn’t becomes eligible for parole until 2026. He unsuccessfully attempted to appeal the case in August 2013.
There were serious questions raised about whether he had been near a park at all. When he was caught, he was in a parking lot that was 907 feet from the border of Chilhowee Park. Also, then -Mayor Madeline Rogero stated in a press conference that Chilhowee Park was not considered a park, despite its name. Johnson’s former attorney also subpoenaed the mayor to testify in another drug-free zone case but the charges were abruptly reduced before she could testify, according to Mfalme-Shula.
Additionally, in 2020 the state of Tennessee reduced the drug-free zones from a distance of 1,000 feet to a distance of 500 feet from schools and parks. If Johnson had been convicted today, he couldn’t have faced the additional penalties for selling drugs in a drug free zone.
According to CDET, one reason the case is so disturbing is that drug free zone laws are examples of systemic racism. Due to economic disparities, the parts of town that are predominately Black are usually more urban. This means that any offense is far more likely to be within proximity to parks, schools, day cares and other locations covered by the law than are offenses committed by whites in less densely populated suburbs. In densely populated urban areas, these spaces are so common that entire cities can be covered by drug-free zones – with the accompanying mandatory minimum sentences of years behind bars, according to Project Know, an information service provided by the American Addiction Centers.
Kendra Willis, Johnson’s girlfriend, has been using the information and connections she’s picked up through her involvement with CDET to plead with state officials to make the change in the law retroactive. “I’m just thankful for the support of other families and that I have the ability to support others,” she said.
Another legal practice that CDET and other reform groups have fought against is giving life sentences to juveniles.
A life sentence in Tennessee means there is no possibility of parole before 51 years, and no inmate in the history of the Tennessee Department of Correction has ever lived to serve the full 51-year sentence. According to CDET, full adult brain development does not occur until an individual is in their early 20s. Therefore, they argue, 17-year-olds should not be penalized with a full life sentence as if they were adults.
To Mfalme-Shula, this issue might be a bit more personal than others. Some of Mfalme-Shula’s closest friends are Betty Sanders and her son, Quinton Sanders.
At 17 years old, Quinton Sanders was sentenced to life in prison for an unintentional, fatal car crash. Sanders has served 22 years and is now almost 40; he has spent over half his life behind bars.
“Quinton is a personal friend of mine,” said Mfalme-Shula. “We developed a friendship then a brother/sisterhood. He was the actually the first person that I actually advocated for.”
The actions that Quinton took on October 12, 1999, changed the course of his life. He and a friend attempted to shoplift clothes from a department store in Memphis to cover missing money that gang members were demanding. During their attempt to flee the scene, a police officer lost his life in a car crash and Sanders was ultimately convicted of felony murder.
Sanders’ childhood experiences played a significant role in the fatal crash that day and highlight the moral difficulties of treating minors like adults. Growing up in a single-parent home without a father, he longed for male mentorship and guidance. His neighborhood was dominated by gangs, which means Sanders and others found themselves in situations where they had to make life or death decisions that no child is equipped to make.
During his sentencing, the victim’s sister said that she didn’t want Sanders locked up for the death of her brother, as the crash was clearly accidental. “I realized I had the potential to change my life after hearing the words of my victim’s family during court,” Sanders said later. “These words offered me a sense of hope, to stay focused, and to be transformed from the inside out. I will never forget what his sister said. She encouraged me to educate myself, which is necessary to live a productive life, and set me up for success upon reentry into society. The mercy she showed me fueled my desire to grow and become a better person.”
Mfalme-Shula said that Quinton is now a changed man. No longer a member of the gang, he is a youth mentor for “The Don’t Follow Me” program in the West Tennessee State Prison. In addition, he is a certified residential electrician and has a certification in Masonry.
CDET currently has online petitions addressed to Governor Lee asking for drug free zone laws to be made retroactive for Terrell Johnson’s case, and asking for clemency in Quinton Sanders case. Both petitions can be found on change.org
Jennifer Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on July 19, 2021