Generally Speaking, a podcast series presented by the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office
In this podcast series, Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen discusses important issues impacting public safety with expert, frontline prosecutors.
The District Attorney General’s office can sometimes seem shrouded in secrecy. This is most often due to ethical rules that prohibit us from discussing pending cases. Our goal is to pull back that perceived curtain and tell you exactly who we are and what we do in the pursuit of justice both in the courtroom and the community. Generally speaking, of course!
Generally Speaking is a true prosecution podcast hosted by the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office. Each episode highlights a special prosecution unit and unveils what it is like to represent the State of Tennessee in the courtroom and community.
District Attorney General Charme Allen sits down with prosecutors from the Major Crimes Unit to discuss and answer questions they hear the most while working a case. The first episode of the series focuses on homicide cases, since a high percentage of these cases travel through each stop in the criminal justice system. While popular shows usually solve crime in an hour, the wheels of justice can turn slowly. It can take months to get blood results back or years before a case goes to trial.
For Sidebar Conversations, visit https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHCmVM_VNTZZKdahEeLU1w
Note: Generally Speaking is intended to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the podcast which includes emphasis and tone. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
[00:00:00] CA: Welcome. I’m Knox County District Attorney General, CA Allen. Thank you for joining us on Generally Speaking, where I will discuss important issues impacting public safety with expert frontline prosecutors who are seeking justice each and every day.
The District Attorney General’s office can sometimes seem shrouded in secrecy. This is most often due to ethical rules that prohibit us from discussing pending cases. Our goal is to pull back that perceived curtain and tell you exactly who we are and what we do, in the pursuit of justice, both in the courtroom and the community. Generally speaking, of course! Welcome to the first episode of Generally Speaking in this podcast, we’re going to examine specific types of crimes through the lens of our special prosecution units.
But before we dive into specifics, I’d like to spend just a little bit of time. Telling our listeners, exactly what a prosecutor is and what a prosecutor does. In Tennessee, we have 95 counties. Those 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Each of those judicial districts has one elected district attorney general.
I am the elected district attorney general for this sixth judicial district. Here, the sixth judicial district happens to encompass geographically, just Knox County. In my office, I have over 40 assistant district attorneys, also known as prosecutors. These prosecutors basically seek justice for the state of Tennessee each and every day. They seek this justice in many different ways. They help law enforcement investigate crimes on the front end, after helping law enforcement investigate crimes, they represent the state and many different courts here in Knox county. They represent the state of Tennessee in five sessions courts, three criminal courts, one juvenile court and many specialty courts. Some of those specialty courts you’ll hear about as this podcast continues in order to best equip these prosecutors to serve our community and our victims.
I have divided the prosecutors in my office into special prosecution units. Each of these units is made up of a group of prosecutors, victim, witness coordinators, and support staff members.
What each unit or group does is basically specialize in a particular type of crime. The thinking is if we specialize small groups of prosecutors and support staff to deal with particular types of crime, they will better serve victims by becoming specialized in that area. For instance, we have a child abuse unit where all the prosecutors receive special training only on prosecution of child abuse cases, training that would deal with how to talk to and interview young victims. We train those particular prosecutors on trauma, the reaction of children and traumatic situations. And we don’t train anyone else in the office on that. So, our child abuse prosecutors are specially trained in that area.
We have other specialized prosecution units that you will hear from throughout this podcast. The first specialized prosecution unit that we’re going to hear from today is our major crimes unit. Our major crimes unit is the unit where our most egregious cases are handled. These prosecutors handle my most serious crimes.
They deal with our violent class, A and class B felonies. Now what that means is they deal with cases like homicide, rape, aggravated robbery, aggravated arson. The people, the victims impacted by these crimes are our most severely impacted victims. And the members of this unit that you’re going to meet today, walk with those victims, shepherd those victims through the entire criminal justice process. For the purposes of this podcast, we’re going to focus mainly on the homicide cases that they deal with. And in order for you to better understand what homicides look like and Knox county at the time of this podcast, I want to start by giving our listeners some statistical data.
Last year in 2020, we saw the highest number of homicides in Knox County that we have had in our recent history with 45. Unfortunately, as we’ve started this year, 2021, we have an even higher rate of homicides than we saw at the same time last year. Most of our homicides are committed inside the city limits. And the vast majority of our homicides are committed with firearms.
With us today are two assistant district attorneys from our major crimes unit. We have ADA Kevin Allen who joined the office in 1995. And it has been the lead prosecutor on a wide range of violent crimes, as well as numerous prosecutions of homicides throughout his career. He successfully prosecuted our district’s first cold case CODIS DNA match on a serial rapist. Thanks for joining us General Allen.
KA: Thanks for having me.
CA: We also have ADA Hector Sanchez who joined the office in 2010. Before joining the major crimes unit, he served in our felony drug unit. General Sanchez also carries the title of Sergeant Sanchez in the United States Marine Corps. Before receiving an honorable discharge in 2009, he distinguished himself in our armed services by serving in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Thank you for your service and thank you for joining us General Sanchez.
HS: Thank you, General.
CA: All right, let’s begin our direct examination. Well, we chose your unit to start this podcast because such a high percentage of your crimes travel all the way through the system ending up in a jury trial.
So we wanted to use you to walk us through that process while at the same time highlighting homicide cases and how a prosecutor deals with homicide cases. So let’s start by asking what point do you, as a prosecutor, get involved in a homicide case.
[00:06:14] KA: We’re really fortunate in our jurisdiction to have two things going for us. The first is that we have a really good relationship working relationship with our local law enforcement agencies. Both the Knoxville Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department have experienced units they’ve assembled. I think we have about 20 full-time investigators between the two agencies who we deal with on a regular basis, nine with the Sheriff’s Department, 11 with the city police department.
And they focus or rather they stack the deck so to speak with the experienced investigators, the people that are assigned to those units are in fact, the, probably the most experienced folks. As far as on the front end, we have communication with them through our office, through an on-call system.
There’s four full-time prosecutors in our unit, two victim witness coordinators and our executive secretary in our unit. And we rotate to the crimes as they come out and we have instant communication. As I mentioned on call communications where we answer questions in the field when a homicide occurs, so the investigators will call us.
But as I mentioned before, they’re extremely experienced and they’ll need information from us with regard to everything from executing search warrants,
to charging decisions and those types of things. So when we get involved as essentially right on the front end, we would get calls when they’re at, out at the scene and try to do our part in assisting and guiding that investigator.
[00:07:38] CA: Well, particularly in these homicide cases, one of the most common questions that we received from the community and often from victim’s families is what is taking so long. Why is my case taking forever to go through the system? So if you, as prosecutors get involved from the very beginning with these investigators, when the crime occurs, explain to our listeners why the pre-charge phase may take such a long time for a prosecutor.
[00:08:03] HS: Well, General Allen, these cases, homicides, uh, in themselves are very complex. They’re unique in several ways. Foremost, there’s not a victim. We are advancing on a case without somebody to testify as to what occurred, what happened to them. We’re relying upon proof and witnesses, uh, in these types of cases.
Another consideration why these cases are unique is that the consequences are very severe. If convicted in the state of Tennessee of a first degree murder, defendant will receive an automatic life sentence. Another consideration to take into account of why these cases are taking a long time to make a charging decision and then perhaps to advance to a jury trial, uh, as the collection of relevant records that pertain to the case, some of these include the final medical examiners report. And in that report, that will catalog, various injuries and the cause and manner of death. And as you said earlier, the typical manner, the most often case we have is gunshot wounds here in Knox county. Furthermore, forensic documentation we conduct or ask for firearms analysis to be conducted toolmark analysis in firearms, shell casing comparison, fingerprint analysis.
And these are things that are complex, um, in themselves, they require sending certain pieces of evidence off to a state lab to be tested. Uh, this is not something that can be done overnight. This is a turnaround of roughly eight months at this point, if I’m not mistaken, uh, with regard to scientific testing, that’s another consideration as to why this case may be taking a while to, uh, one, make a charging decision or to advance the trial DNA, waiting on DNA, to be able to link a perpetrator to a crime scene. Sometimes gunshot residue tests are taken to determine whether or not the suspect we believe is responsible for a homicide has gunshot residue on their extremities, particularly their hands.
So typically this is not what you see on TV. It’s, it’s very complex. Uh, there’s a lot of consideration that goes into a charging decision and there’s even more follow-up investigation that occurs before a jury trial. So that’s part of the
reason that we most often have to explain to grieving families, why sometimes several months will elapse before someone is charged and then, you know, one or two years will lapse before we can eventually proceed to trial.
[00:10:16] CA: Speaking of that one to two years before the case goes to trial, can you explain to our listeners what happens to a homicide case after a charging decision is made?
[00:10:32] KA: Well, all of those things that Hector’s referring to, you know, the things that we do before a decision’s made all of those things come together for us to form a decision on how we’re going to proceed. There’s one of two ways we can proceed in Tennessee once the decision has been made to charge. The first is through a general sessions warrant, where a officer appears before a magistrate and swears out allegations inside of a warrant alleging the elements of the offense and in our case a first degree murder. And, uh, that person is then brought before the magistrate gone out and actually arrested and brought before the magistrate. The other way that we can initiate a process. Once the charging decisions been made is through indictment by the grand jury. And that’s a process where we go directly to the grand jury and appear in front of them with a charging document. And we make the allegations of homicide in the charging document and the grand jury reviews that to determine whether or not there’s probable cause for that, that offense has been committed. And once they do that, then they issue an arrest warrant for the defendant after that.
So both of those ways, uh, once we make the decision to charge are ways that we can, uh, get a person into custody and initiate the criminal process.
[00:11:37] CA: During this process, what should a victim’s family expect from our office?
[00:11:42] HS: Well, General, I think first and foremost, a victim’s family should expect a continuous line of communication with our office.
We are fortunate to have victim witness coordinators assigned to each and every case. We are also fortunate in the major crimes unit to be a vertical unit. And when I say vertical unit, what I’m referring to is that that case is assigned to a particular prosecutor in our unit, and a particular victim witness coordinator.
And they are with that family throughout the duration. The cases inception, if you will. So from the charging decision all the way through a jury trial, and sometimes after for a post-conviction relief that Kevin will talk about later, but communication is key. And obviously a family should expect to be
communicated with, with every step of the criminal justice process that they’ve ventured through. They should also expect to receive certain resources. Uh, the victims compensation act permits burial expenses to be covered in certain scenarios, particularly with homicide cases. So they are made available resources to them to deal with such instances as burial expenses. They should also expect to have a voice in the disposition of the case.
They should expect to be consulted with regarding any potential offers that are going to be made. Uh, if the case warrants an offer to be made such as, uh, an issue with proof or sometimes that that happens. Although in our cases, we tend to go to trial more than anything else, but, uh, they certainly, well, while they are not controlling, uh, the victim’s rights certainly mandates that we communicate with these victims’ families and keep them apprised of what’s going on. They should also expect to be notified if the defendant is released. Um, and the victim witness coordinator is able to coordinate that, uh, internally and sign them up with a website called VINE link, where they will be notified of the defendant status, whether or not they’ve made bond and whether what type of community supervision has been placed on them such as a GPS monitoring device.
[00:13:36] CA: So there’s a lot going on during this time period. And it sounds like the victim witness coordinators do a lot of reaching out to these families throughout this process to keep them apprised of what’s going on. During this time of preparing for trial and getting from that arraignment phase, if you will, through the actual trial of a case where we actually go in front of a jury, how long does that typically take? How long is this family communicating with our office throughout that process?
[00:14:06] KA: Well, I think that’s a good question. And that it’s a common question that we get at our initial appearances in our initial meetings with victim’s families is how long between now and trial. And, uh, typically what we’ll tell them and explain to them is the processes that are going to happen between the defendant’s arrest and the actual jury trial are pretty significant. We go through processes of pre-trial litigation with discovery, meaning we provide the defendant and the defense team, uh, with all the documents and tangible objects and those types of things that we intend to introduce against that person. Once that’s done, then there are other issues that have to be vetted out like, possibly mental health examinations.
Uh, we have potential experts that are going to testify for the defense. And then if the defense notices on a particular expert, we may want to get our own expert, uh, and those things develop and take time. So the answer is usually that I give
to a victim’s family, is that, typically between the time of the incident from the date of offense through the jury trial, somewhere on the order of two years before we get to trial. There are some cases that we’ve gotten to trial in a year, but those are few and far between. The recent pandemic didn’t help the backlog of cases. So I don’t know what I’m estimating right now. We, uh, hopefully we’ll be able to overcome the backlog that we’ve had and, and for a victim’s family to keep it to a minimum. But the other item that the victims don’t know, uh, to talk about is that there’s a significant amount of time on the back end as well after trial.
There’s a, that the victim’s family may be dealing with the case, especially in a homicide because after the trial, we have multiple phases of appeals and we have what was called a post-conviction relief act, where the defendant, then once all their appeals are exhausted, they can then come back. And they have alleged constitutional layers, like ineffective assistance of counsel and those types of things.
And, and that phase can take significantly longer than it takes to even get to trial. We prepare the victims on the front end for this is going to be a really long time. And unfortunately that’s the system that we have, but if we prepare them on the front end and they know we’re going to bat for them and they know we’re going to be here for them, and we’re going to answer all their questions, I think that that helps alleviate a lot of their concerns on the front end.
[00:16:25] CA: I have seen that, uh, in the past many times, victims, families get frustrated because it takes so long to get the case to trial. And so sometimes I think they’re dealing with emotions and anger and at some points they kind of take that out on us because it’s taking so long. And so they start to question, are you really on my side?
And then I have watched prosecutors go into the courtroom and fight tooth and nail for every single victim that has been the victim of a homicide. And I’ve watched those families come out of the courtroom saying, wow, I really get it now. And now that I see these prosecutors in the courtroom, really leaving nothing on the table, fighting for their loved one, then the families always come around and say, you know, I see that it really wasn’t you, that caused this to take so long.
It’s really the way the system is just stacked. And so, um, I think that once, you’re right, once those victims see you actually perform in a courtroom to where, uh, you really are giving it your all those victims’ families are always so appreciative. Something else you touched on just briefly is the COVID
influence on the length of time it takes to get a case to trial. Just so our listeners will know pre pandemic, we were averaging about 80 trials a year in our office. Last year during the pandemic, we were able to try 16. So that has caused a significant backlog and just being able to get cases through. So from here forward, not only will our homicide cases be affected, but I think all of our trials are going to take significantly longer. Unfortunately. So these victim’s families are, um, unfortunately going to have to deal with the system for a much longer time, I’m afraid. Another thing that we could talk about is the effect that television has on your homicide cases, shows like Law and Order CSI, just the emergence of all these true crime shows.
How have those shows specifically in homicide cases affected juries.
[00:18:26] HS: Well General, I think they’ve certainly affected juries. Um, there’s something that’s referred to as the CSI effect. And if you think of CSI Horatio Caine, he’s able to pull up a DNA standard on a touchscreen. Within minutes after a homicide is committed, he’s always able to capture video of the crime taking place, the identity of the perpetrator, the immediacy of the turnaround of physical evidence, satellite imaging, things that are just, um, while we have access to certain of these technological advances, they are, they take time. Um, so one of the important things about the CSI effect is we have jury selection of course, or voir dire, and that, uh, occurs before a jury trial, uh, happens.
And that enables us to handpick 12 people that we believe would be best suited for a particular case, given the facts and circumstances, uh, within that process it’s very important that we, uh, make sure that the prospective jurors understand that they’re not going to attach burdens to us, that we don’t possess. That they’re going to understand that not every case has DNA associated.
Uh, not every case is captured on video. There’s not immediate turnaround, forensic testing. Uh, there’s not immediate turnaround, biological testing. These things take time. Such things as vehicle trackers. For example, uh, one of the things that’s used in a lot of these true crime shows that are fictitious in nature are automatically put on a vehicle or fixed to it. When the reality is there’s some litigation on the front end that it has to occur for that to take place. So I do believe that the CSI effect is real. However, I think a jury selection enables us to kind of vet out folks and explain to them why things may take longer. Why we may not have access to all the proof that they want to see.
So it’s certainly a challenge, but it’s not something that I feel can’t be overcome.
[00:20:14] CA: Let’s talk about another part of the trial process. Kevin, can you describe for our listeners the actual burden of proof for a trial?
[00:20:22] KA: Sure. As I, as I mentioned before, in a criminal case, a, the remedy that we’re seeking is to take someone’s liberty.
When you think about the gravity of that, that we’re actually going to confine somebody as a result of their conduct, you would expect that we would have the most stringent of reviews in terms of the burden of proof for trial and in a criminal case, the burden of proof is that the state has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the offense. Because we have the burden of proof that just means that we have to put the witnesses on who will satisfy the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. And the way I explain that to a jury. And when Hector was talking about for voir dire is we talk about burdens of proof in voir dire. And you will doubt what’s happened in this case as a human being.
One of the human conditions that we have is that we doubt things that we haven’t seen. And even sometimes we doubt things we have seen, I use an anecdotal story in voir dire about, uh, one day I came home and, and, uh, I had been doing some remodeling and I’d placed an old toilet out on the carport in my house.
And I saw out of the corner of my eye, believed that it was my son using the toilet on the carport and I was disheveled and shocked by it. And I lost control of my, my, uh, uh, pack and books. And I, as I bend over and pick things up, I look back over and he was gone. He wasn’t there. And so I doubted myself, uh, having even witnessed this crime in my, uh, carport.
And I tell juries of that, that I then went over and I inspected the evidence and lifted the toilet seat. And sure enough, uh, there was some fresh evidence. I was pretty convinced then when I found my son that he had committed this offense, but I say that in jest to juries to say that we doubt ourselves because it’s common that you’re going to have doubt when you hear evidence, you weren’t there, you can’t be absolutely certain. And even if you did see it, uh, sometimes you’re not certain of the things that you see and perceive. The instruction that the jury gets is that if they have a doubt, that that doubt has to be reasonable, that they have to, with, to a degree of moral certainty, uh, believe the defendant committed the offense.
And that’s the standard of proof that, that were held up to. And we face that at the jury trial head on, and we tell the jury, you hold us to that. And for that
reason, we have the burden of proof. And, uh, courtrooms all over this country. You’ll see that the state is, uh, seated closest to the jury. That’s because we have the burden of proof.
Uh, we get to go first and we get to go last and our arguments, uh, because we have the burden of proof. And I think it’s a fair one. And I think that holding us to that burden of proof is given the possibility that we’re going to deprive somebody of their Liberty is, is justified.
[00:23:10] CA: Uh, especially in a homicide case, can either one of you tell our listeners what the potential range of punishments for homicides and the disparity here in Tennessee.
[00:23:20] HS: Yes, General. So, there are five forms of homicide in the state of Tennessee. Uh, the, the least severe being criminally negligent homicide, which as a range, one offender carries a punishment of one to two years. The second would be a reckless homicide. That’s a class D felony that carries between two to four years as a range one offender.
Uh, third being a voluntary manslaughter, that being a class C felony, uh, that, uh, carries a punishment of three to six years as a range, one offender, fourth least severe, uh, second, most severe second degree murder. And there’s quite a jump here. Disparity with regard to sentencing a range one offender of convicted of second degree murder in the state of Tennessee faces a mandatory sentence of 15 to 25 years to be served at a 100% service rate.
That means obviously is that they’re not eligible for parole. There is in fact a condition within the TCA that, uh, or a statute within the Tennessee code that enables offenders to receive 15% off that sentence if they behave while they’re confined. Uh, and last there’s first degree murder, um, which in the state of Tennessee carries an automatic life sentence.
So 60 years, minus 15%, which comes out to 51 calendar years.
[00:24:24] KA: And there’s also a potential, obviously with the first degree murder of certain enhancement factors are met that, uh, we could also seek life without the possibility of parole and the death penalty. In the state of Tennessee. So those are the other alternatives for first degree murder.
[00:24:38] CA: I think that’s always surprising for people to hear that when you have committed a murder where there’s a homicide, that there’s actually something called criminally negligent homicide that you could actually serve as
little as one year on probation for all the way up to, um, as you’ve discussed the death penalty, but there’s just such a wide range of punishments for homicide.
[00:25:01] KA: Yes. And we have in Tennessee, we even have a process called judicial diversion where people are eligible to get their records expunged if they complete their probationary sentences. And the people eligible for judicial diversion are class C felonies and below. So three of our five homicides in Tennessee are actual offenses for which you can be eligible to have it expunged from your record, once you completed your probation.
[00:25:24] HS: And to touch on that just a little bit more. The first three types of offenses, the most, three least severe as Kevin was talking about, they are presumed probatable. So if a, this is a first time offender, we are going to face a serious uphill battle for asking that this defendant, after he’s found guilty or pleads guilty to the offense serve a sentence in the penitentiary, uh, we have quite a battle ahead of us to achieve that.
[00:25:46] CA: And it’s always so hard for victims’ families when they first hear that, you know, I’ve lost my loved one for eternity. We’ll never see them again. And there’s a potential that the person that could even be convicted of taking my loved one’s life, uh, could have the record expunged could actually receive probation. I have always found that that’s quite shocking often to victims’ families. So I wanted to touch on that.
Let’s talk about curve balls. What’s the biggest curve ball you’ve been thrown during a jury trial.
[00:26:17] HS: Well, General, I think the biggest curve ball, um, for me, at least I think Kevin would agree is that, that we’re not entitled to know what the defense. Um, and just on a fundamental level, that seems unfair as we go through the discovery process and we essentially show our hand of cards, if you will, we show all the proof against the defendant. And then we are left to sit and speculate as to what defense they’re going to go after and their case in chief if they intend to do so.
So that’s always a curve ball for me. There’s never one trial that I’ve gone through that hasn’t had a curve ball, in fact. Another one that I’ve experienced on two occasions is during the case in chief, um, the defendant approaching the state or through his attorney and asking to resolve the case and plead guilty to a pretty lengthy prison term in exchange for stopping the trial. Maybe things are not looking good for them. And that’s obviously a risk as well because you run the chance of, if we don’t accept this, um, perhaps a jury will not convict them
even of what he’s offered. So, um, typically our position. I believe in the office is if we’re going, if we’ve made it to trial, we’re going to see it through.
So that’s a curve ball, but we have remedies in place to avoid that. Another curve ball that I’ve experienced is witnesses backing up, uh, whether that’s at a fear of people who are physically present in the courtroom. It’s not unusual for someone who’s charged with homicide to have a lot of spectators in support of them.
A lot of those individuals are tied to some pretty serious, uh, street gangs at times, or just dangerous inherently have criminal records. Witness inability to identify a defendant in trial, whether or not that’s genuine or the result of some sort of coercion that’s occurring. So coercion is definitely a curve ball.
Coercion happens. One of the biggest curve balls that I recall in a trial was using a confidential informant who was confined in jail against a heroin dealer and what, after he had testified. And while he was being held in the slam, we call it it’s a jail cell behind the courtroom, he was actually seriously assaulted at the direction of the defendant, although the defendant was a female, she directed the other males in the male slam to assault him with handcuffs and he was seriously injured. Uh, so that’s just some examples of curveballs that I’ve kind of experienced in trial.
[00:28:28] KA: I’ve of course, experienced the same types of things. Um, specifically, uh, in, in Tennessee, we have rules of reciprocal discovery, meaning the defendant has to turn over, uh, documents or tangible objects if they’re going to use them. And there are some defenses like mental health defenses that were we’re entitled to get notice of, but for the large part, it’s trial by ambush in Tennessee, they, the defendant and the defense attorney can figure out what their defense is. And, you know, essentially surprise us with it at trial. And that’s happened to me on multiple occasions where I wholly not expected a particular defense, because one of the things that we do during pretrial litigation phase is the defendants who are incarcerated, uh, their jail mail and their phone calls are monitored for security purposes.
And we monitor those and sometimes we’ll get intelligence on what a defense is. And I recently had a first degree murder case where, uh, the defendant, uh, the entire time during all his jail communications was alleging that some other dude did it. We call that the SODDI defense, S-O-D-D-I, some other dude did it.
And, uh, so we fully expected that somebody else was going to, he was going to present a defense where somebody else was going to be, uh, have participated in the crime. So I spent a significant amount of pre-trial preparation with, uh, cell phone companies, uh, GPS, ping locations, all of those things including the exhibits and, and, um, expensive exhibits, uh, preparing for, uh, placing the defendant at the crime scene at the exact time, and date and place of the crime occurred. And, uh, well, leading up to trial, I spend a significant amount of resources on that. And, uh, an opening statement, the defense attorney stood up and said, um, my, my person is guilty of this offense, but we have an explanation for his conduct.
And so all the resources and effort that I put into the preparation for proving that it was this, the person that did it, not some other dude did it that, uh, uh, that kinda all went to the wayside. And I was a little floored, actually. That was a recent murder trial where that curve ball, uh, and the inability to, to really know what the defense is prior to trial is, uh, something you really got to be prepared for. Anything can happen in the trial.
And in this particular case, since that defendant was saying, he didn’t do it all along to his family, we fully expected that, but we just had to roll with it. And we ended up with a good result in the case.
[00:31:05] HS: I think sometimes too, that some of these defenses are immediately dismissed by the jury. It’s been my observation. Hybrid defenses, if you will. I’ve seen that in, in two of the cases that I’ve handled and that typically is, you know, I didn’t do it, but if you think I did it, if the proof shows that I did in fact do it, then I acted in self-defense and, and I’ve noticed that jurors are pretty dismissive of that and that they don’t, they don’t assign much weight to that particular defense.
[00:31:29] KA: Yeah. We want jurors with common sense. That’ll dismiss that kind of stuff.
[00:31:32] CA: Well, as you’ve both just described, there are no guarantees in jury trials. So, with that in mind, uh, what’s the longest and shortest amount of time you’ve had to wait for a verdict.
[00:31:43] KA: I think in my experience, a quick verdict is not a good sign for the state.
There is no really hard and fast rule on, on the length of time they’ve come back because, uh, normally quick verdicts are bad, but some of the best verdicts I’ve
had were within minutes as well. So it’s, it ranges anything from minutes to several days. Uh, the juries have instructions. They go back in the jury room with it sometimes 60, 70 pages long.
And so. Uh, for people that aren’t used to, um, legal terms for people that don’t have no exposure to the criminal justice system, which are the, essentially the folks that we’re, we’re seeking out to, uh, sit on juries, uh, it’ll take them a while to digest that. And so for a jury on a regular first degree murder case, uh, we’ll, it won’t be atypical for them to be out two days.
Uh, And really trying to get it right. And the, and I think our juries really struggle with it and really, uh, try to get the, uh, come up with the right solution. And they want time to do that. So sometimes, uh, the gravity of the case lengthens the time that, uh, the juries want to spend with it. But I think that that’s a good thing.
[00:32:54] HS: And just adding to that. I think it’s been my observation that, that jurors, uh, in the state of Tennessee, they take their civic duty very seriously. They’re very thorough. They have the ability to ask questions and ask the judge, uh, a particular question and the judge will then call the attorneys for both sides in and we will agree on an answer to the question or we will, uh, the judge will refer them back to the jury instructions, which again are very voluminous, uh, just based on these types of offenses. But, uh, overall I think the jurors and the state of Tennessee, they, they really do take this job seriously. They try to get it right.
Uh, they realize how severe these punishments are going to be. Although absent a death penalty case or life without parole, they’re not a fixing punishment. So I think that’s, that’s important for listeners to understand, as well.
[00:33:38] CA: As prosecutors and the major crimes units, you both see and encounter evil in the world on a daily basis. So tell us what keeps you going?
[00:33:48] HS: I think, you know, the cliche kind of statement or response to that is the pursuit of justice, but to me that’s very important. Whether that’s a, a small dose of, uh, giving a family some sense of closure in a homicide case, although their loved one will never be returned to them.
They know that there’s some form of accountability that the defendant’s going to face for the decisions he made or she made to take their loved one’s life. So, uh, the pursuit of justice certainly is my biggest drive to continue doing what I’m doing. And this is a job that I feel is a calling. You don’t become an ADA to be
rolling in the high salaries. You, you do this because of compassion, you do it because you want to make a difference. You do it because you want to see that family come out of the courtroom and, and kiss and cry on you and, and tell you, uh, how much they, uh, are happy that you’ve put forth an effort to prosecute the bad person in this scenario.
So it’s well worth it. To me, it’s the best job that I could think of as being an attorney. And I plan to do it for a career.
[00:34:46] KA: Yeah. And, uh, nothing I can do or say is ever going to alleviate the pain that’s been caused or that they’ve been suffering and enduring since they lost their loved one. And so I take that responsibility when knowing that this is probably I’m going to be dealing with them on what they will consider the worst day of their life and talking about the worst day of their life.
I don’t take it personal when they don’t want to see me again after the trial. But I can say that when you set it off, when you said at the beginning that we give our all for them, I view a jury trial as one shot. And it really is because what the public doesn’t know is the state doesn’t get any do overs. The state doesn’t get appeals from bad verdicts that only the defendant does.
So we don’t have anything, any recourse, but this one trial and it’s kind of like a juncture in time and space where everything comes together all at once. And it’s, it’s me and my effort. It’s a, the victim and their losses. It’s the jurors that come together. The judge, uh, that we all come together and the defendant in this, in this juncture, uh, that will only occur once. And if I’m not ready for everything, and if I haven’t done every single thing I could possibly think of and prepared in every possible way that I can possibly prepare, then I haven’t lived up to the oath of my office. And I haven’t lived up to being an, a, a major crimes prosecutor, uh, in seeking justice for that victim.
I view that responsibility, you know, really, uh, incredibly heavy. And I think that they deserve that. And when you say you give it your all a victim’s family knows the difference between a prosecutor who gives their all and who doesn’t. And I think that at the end of the day, when they come out of that, when Hector walks out of the courtroom, uh, whether, you know, the verdict is a good verdict or, or, uh, you know, some sort of compromised verdict, or when I walk out of the courtroom, when that victim’s family, they know that I’ve taken a round house and I’ve done every possible thing that I can possibly do to seek justice in their case and they know the difference. And I think that it’s the gratitude. And I think that keeps me going. I have a picture on my wall that a victim’s family gave me in recognition of a jury trial that I did in a murder case where there
loved one was killed. And one of their family members was a pretty talented artist and he drew a caricature of myself, lead investigator, uh, our victim witness coordinator, Kim strike at the time and our crime scene tech. He drew up a kind of a caricature of superheroes where we, uh, were caricatured as, Batman, Superman, et cetera. And so it was that gratitude with that family had, uh, for me, knowing that I had given my all that, that keeps me going.
[00:37:27] HS: I think one more thing that really drives me to, and, um, into keep going on with these types of cases, despite the obvious presence of evil is the investigators.
Um, these are our people that put forth 110% on every case. As Kevin said earlier, we are fortunate to be able to work with 20 or more investigators between two agencies that, that really give it their all. Um, they will work sometimes 36 hours straight on a case to identify a defendant. They are there at trial.
They are sitting at the table with us. The jury knows who they are. Uh, this is their case that we’re prosecuting, uh, in collaboration with them. Come to really trust us. They come to confide in us, make charging decisions. And it’s, again, it’s just an experience that is like no other to be a member of this unit is certainly a privilege.
[00:38:16] CA: Well, thank you both so much for spending time with us today and thank you for all the time you spend serving victims in our community. You provided some great information and insight for our listeners.
[00:38:28] KA: Thank you.
[00:38:29] HS: Thank you.
[00:38:32] CA: In closing, we want to encourage the community to help prevent crime and promote community safety.
Remember crime doesn’t happen in isolation. It doesn’t matter where you live. Crime impacts all of us. In order to maintain public safety, we need the community’s involvement and the community’s help, especially in homicide cases. If you see something, say something. We need witnesses to come forward and cooperate with law enforcement.
There may be instances where you have crucial information and not even know it. Providing information to the police doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to
testify in a trial but it very well could help solve a homicide. Thank you for listening to Generally Speaking, a podcast presented by the Knox County District Attorney’s Office.
You can find more episodes wherever you listen to podcasts or on our website, Knoxcounty.org/dag. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode where we will be speaking with ADA Willie Lane from our domestic violence unit. If you want to learn more, we’ve included links to Sidebar Conversations in the show notes. Don’t miss out on more behind the scenes content.
For the series’ second episode, District Attorney General Charme Allen discusses domestic violence cases with veteran prosecutor, Willie Lane. Assistant District Attorney Lane breaks down the unique challenges prosecutors face while working domestic violence cases and explains why her goal is to never see the victim or the defendant ever again.
This episode contains content that may be disturbing to some listeners. The contents of this episode include general descriptions of domestic violence and domestic violence cases.
In an emergency, victims of domestic violence should call 911 or contact local law enforcement officials, who can respond to these crimes. Individuals in need of non-emergency assistance can contact the following resources.
Knox County, TN Resources:
Knoxville Family Justice Center: http://www.fjcknoxville.org/
Family Violence Helpline: 865-521-6336
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
For Sidebar Conversations, visit https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHCmVM_VNTZZKdahEeLU1w
Note: Generally Speaking is intended to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the podcast which includes emphasis and tone. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
[00:00:00] CA: This episode contains content that may be disturbing to some listeners. Please check the show notes for a more detailed description.
Welcome I’m Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen. Thank you for joining us on Generally Speaking, where I will discuss important issues impacting public safety with expert frontline prosecutors who are seeking justice each and every day.
The District Attorney General’s Office can sometimes seem shrouded in secrecy. This is most often due to ethical rules that prohibit us from discussing pending cases. Our goal is to pull back that perceived curtain and tell you exactly who we are and what we do in the pursuit of justice, both in the courtroom and the community. Generally Speaking, of course!
Welcome to the second episode of Generally Speaking. In this podcast series, we are examining specific types of crime through the lens of our special prosecution units. We spoke last with prosecutors from our Major Crimes Unit, where we specifically focused on homicide cases.
For this episode, we are sitting down with a team leader of our Domestic Violence Unit. To give you a better understanding of what domestic violence related crime looks like in Knox County at the time of this podcast, I will start with some statistical data. Over the last several years, more warrants have been taken, charging domestic related crimes than any other offense in Knox County.
Our Domestic Violence Unit routinely handles around 25% of all warrants at our sessions court level. In Knox County, our law enforcement partners respond to a domestic-related call every 30 minutes. This high volume of cases has required us to assign four full-time attorneys and three support staff to adequately meet the needs of the victims in these.
With us today is Assistant District Attorney Willie Lane. General Lane joined the office in 1996 while prosecuting many different types of crimes throughout
her career. Her focus has always been domestic-related offenses. She frequently speaks on the topic in the community and at officer training events.
She is currently the team leader of our Domestic Violence Unit. Thank you for joining us, General Lane.
[00:02:16] WL: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:02:17] CA: Well, let’s begin our direct examination. Let’s begin by talking about the types of crimes that you actually handle in the Domestic Violence Unit. Can you talk about what types of crimes are assigned there?
[00:02:28] WL: Absolutely. The Domestic Violence Unit gets the crimes based on two criteria. The first one which is unique to us is the relationship between the defendant and the victim. Statutorily, there are definitions that tell us exactly what types of cases involve a domestic relationship. And then by definition, it also has to be a crime of violence.
Routinely we handle, our most common cases are of course assaults, aggravated assaults, kidnappings. Everything that you would expect to find in this particular type of area. With regard to the relationship, though, I think it’s important to realize that by statute it’s not just intimate partner violence, it’s not just the violence that you see between boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, and wife.
Um, it actually involves any domestic relationship, if you’re related by blood, if you’re related by adoption, if you were married, formerly married or anyone within that family context, that were related by former marriage. If you’re roommates, that means we prosecute cases where they’re roommates on college campuses.
It means we prosecute cases between cousins. Um, we have non intimate partner relationships that actually primarily involve parents and children. It’s vast, is a lot larger than you can imagine as far as the base for the victims in this.
[00:03:50] CA: We’ve talked a lot about the different levels of courts in our system. Let’s talk about domestic violence crimes in particular. Which level of our court system do you handle the most volume of domestic violence cases in?
[00:04:04] WL: Unlike some other units, almost all of our cases are charged by warrant. Officers respond to a scene. If they can determine a primary aggressor, the preferred response is shall arrest.
So, all of those that come in, come in through our general sessions court, the vast majority of our cases are resolved in sessions court. There’s a lot of reasons for that. Unfortunately, more than half of the victims of our cases, either don’t appear in court or appear, but don’t want to participate in the prosecution.
Um, that makes it very difficult to continue. We do try to resolve them as much as possible in sessions court. We also know if we have that victim, we have her or him at that moment in time in front of us. And we may not have that victim by the time it goes to trial. It’s very important to try to gain a resolution if possible.
Not all of them can be resolved at that level. There are a lot of consequences that go along with the domestic violence conviction. If you are convicted of a domestic violence case, you can never own a weapon again by federal law. This makes it, of course something that a lot of people just will not plead to.
There are also cases that are clearly unresolvable because of their nature and because of the heinousness of the act, those have to go into criminal court. Um, luckily, we have two amazing prosecutors in criminal court, Heather Good and Joe Welker who handled them from grand jury on, but Danielle Jones and I handle them downstairs and in sessions and the bulk of them are resolved there.
[00:05:34] CA: What are some common misconceptions about domestic violence cases in general?
[00:05:39] WL: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is kind of what we were talking about earlier. The types of victims that we assist with. I think most people look at it as an intimate partner relationship type of crime, and it, and it’s not by statute.
We have so many parents that are coming in who have children that are drug addicted or have mental health issues. We deal with all of those. I think another um, misconception is that the victim of a domestic violence relationship is the one pressing charges. That is absolutely 100% never the case. It’s the state of Tennessee that presses the charges.
The victim does not have the ability to either press the charge or drop the charge. That’s completely up to the State. So many times, we’ll be listening to jail calls or we’ll be talking to victims when they come in who say they’ve been pressured not to come into court or to drop the charges. And we don’t do that.
If we can proceed, we will. Um, with or without the victim’s participation, because think about it. Why should it be different than any other crime? That person is a subpoenaed witness/victim who has been the victim of a violent offense by definition. I think something else that, that people thought regarding domestic violence is that somehow, it’s just not as serious as a case that doesn’t involve a domestic relationship.
That somehow, for example, one of the highest percentage of cases that we prosecute is aggravated assault by strangulation. It’s a particularly violent act, which is a precursor in a lot of ways to homicides. A victim that has been strangled is, there’s so many percentages, but I think 75% more likely to be the victim of an attempted homicide.
Strangulation is a huge lethality. I think some people look at a domestic relationship and somehow think that that victim might be less traumatized or it’s not as serious as if it were a stranger on the street. Because if you think about it, someone walking up and strangling a stranger, you’re horrified, with regard to a domestic violence contest, somehow it doesn’t seem quite as bad.
And that’s just insanity. It’s equally as traumatizing sometimes more so. So, I think that there’s this idea of it’s just not quite as bad as a stranger case.
[00:07:50] CA: There seems to be a very large percentage of victims who don’t want to proceed with these cases. And one of the reasons you just mentioned is because they would often say that they have been pressured not to come to court or to pursue the prosecution. Can you talk about who it is that’s placing these pressure points on these victims, not to show up?
[00:08:09] WL: First and foremost, it’s the defendants themselves. Anytime someone is arrested for a domestic violence case, they’re released on a conditional release order, which precludes that defendant from contacting the victim in any way, shape, form, fashion, third-party contact.
But the number of cases that we get in that are violations of those conditional releases are amazing. And luckily by statute, if we can prove that you violated that you can be held without bond, you forfeit your right to bond. If you violate that condition and the reason our legislature decided that was because of these coercive tactics on the part of defendants.
And we know this because the main way we know it is through jail calls. It is remarkable the number of defendants while in custody, that it will tell their victims don’t come to court. Don’t prosecute, uh, had a case just a couple of
weeks ago, we had a young woman outside, and you could tell she was very frightened.
And there were two young men that were circling her, turns out that they were friends of the defendants. We had them immediately brought to the attention of the court officers here and, you know, tried to resolve that situation. But you’ve got to remember. These are specifically cases where these people have had a relationship for years or whatever period of time beforehand.
So, there is a continuing relationship there that is unique to a stranger case. So, methods of coercion like that are much more effective with a domestic violence victim than with someone that let’s say I called you and said, don’t come to court, but you’d never met me before. Well, that’s one thing, let’s say that you are the father of my children that has beaten me for years and you tell me not to come to court. That’s an entirely different, um, form of fear that they’re going to react to. So that’s one of the reasons they don’t come.
[00:09:53] CA: There are a lot of these victims that are pressured not to come, not to pursue the prosecution or cooperate in the process. So, are you able to prosecute cases successfully, even when the victim does not want to be part of the process?
[00:10:07] WL: We use everything we can to try to make it without that victim having to come into court if she’s not able to. We don’t want to quote revictimize her by taking away her voice. But at the same time, she’s the victim of a violent crime. And it’s, I mean, when it comes down to it, it’s my job to prosecute violent crime.
If a victim is unwilling or unable to participate, we never force that victim to come in. We never threatened or coerced that victim. If we can make it without her, we do it through our officer involvement, through 911 calls through jail calls, witnesses that the officers have spoken to. With regard to our law enforcement, we went to them and they have responded gangbusters. We went to every training. We went to every roll call. When we called upon them to be the voice of the victims and to be the first face that victim saw that she felt, and I say, she, of course, males can be victims as well. 85% of true batters are male and the victims are females. So that’s kind of like the language that I use, but certainly I don’t mean to say that men can’t also be victims. So, I think in the long run, if it can protect her and maybe assist him to not commit the crime anymore, that’s what we’re here for.
[00:11:24] CA: I think you’re touching on this but let me ask the question. If the victim doesn’t want to prosecute, what are some of the reasons that you feel you need to continue on with that prosecution even if she doesn’t want to go forward?
[00:11:37] WL: The reasons why domestic violence victims don’t want to prosecute, honestly, could be a podcast in and of itself. There are so many and they’re valid and they’re so true to these victims. I kind of call it the five F’s. Fear, finance, fantasy, failure, fault. With regard to the fear aspect of it, victims don’t want to prosecute because it is the most dangerous time for a victim. If they’re trying to leave that relationship. 75% of all emergency room visits with regard to domestic violence occur when a victim is leaving or attempting to leave that home. 25% of all domestic violence related homicides occur when a victim is either attempting to leave or has already left that home.
So, when someone says, why doesn’t she just leave? She knows that she is in danger if she leaves. That’s just a fact. Another major reason that victims don’t come forward is our financial reasons. You know, I get up in the morning, I leave my house, I leave, um, get in my car. I drive to work. But provides me wonderful insurance and benefits. And I’m so fortunate in that. I don’t rely on someone else for those things. Or more importantly, my children don’t rely on someone else for those things. Imagine if you come into court, you assist in the prosecution of a case, you know, what’s going to happen is you’re going to leave your home or lose your home.
Your insurance, your children’s insurance comes into play. Those are huge factors. And the fact that your entire life is going to turn upside down. Everything that you have known maybe for years, maybe for decades, is going to be gone. If you go in and tell the truth about what this person is doing to you and your children’s lives are affected just the same. People don’t think about the reality of that. Another reason is fantasy. I say fantasy kind of tying into what we talked about. That victim wants more than anything in the world to believe it’s not true. It’s not really the person that’s hurting me. That’s not who they really are, who they really are as the person that loves me and cares for me that I see the other 50% of the time.
If it’s that person if that’s really who they are. Then everything I know goes away. My entire life goes away. A lot of times a true batterer is very, very good at making a victim believe that she has brought this on herself. The number of times I’ve spoken with the victim outside the courtroom, who says, well, I pushed his buttons that’s why he strangled me, or I knew by then that he was in a bad mood, but I still, you know, talking to him about this, because I really
wanted to talk to him about the problems in our marriage. And so that’s when he put his hands on me. They have gotten very used to being told it’s their fault. So, feeling at fault is a huge factor.
And faith. There are a lot of situations where people have gotten married, and they want this marriage to work, and they believe marriage is truly until death do us part. The good and the bad. And this is just part of the bad they have to put up with. There’s an embarrassment that goes on. You focus on the strangest things because to focus on the reality of it is just so hard. You don’t want to believe it’s true, but going back to the feelings part of it, I think most importantly, and the most cited thing that we hear and almost in a way that’s making fun or derisive of a victim, is that she loves him. She’s gone back because she loves him. She loves him. Well, guess what? She loves him.
This is a human being that she has had a relationship with perhaps for decades. This was someone she had a first date with. This was someone who was there at the birth of their child. This was someone that was there at the death of a parent. This is someone that is not a monster. We try to have this idea that an abuser is a monster, because if they are, then it goes back to victim blaming.
It should be easy to leave a monster. Who couldn’t? They’re not. They’re human beings that have committed a horrible act. They’re human beings that are probably the result of growing up in a violent home. They are men and women that have mental health issues, at times, that have addictions, at times. Those are not excuses, but certainly go into why these things are happening.
We are seeing a snapshot on that warrant. Just one single snapshot of a human life. This victim is coming in with an entire video catalog of a life with this person, and she loves him. Love is a motivating factor as fear any day. So that’s nothing to be made fun of. That’s something to understand and put them in the context of why it’s difficult for her to come in and then stand up and testify against him.
Imagine that. So, there’s so many issues that go into it, but they’re all valid issues that we’ve got to look at and put an end to. What should we do with this case? Every prosecutor in your unit has one goal in mind, every single one of us, we have two human beings here and we don’t ever want to see them again.
It’s not a conviction rate. It’s not sending somebody to the penitentiary. That’s not it. That’s never it in this unit. It is what brought this abuser into court and what brought this victim into court and how can we get her, the services or him, the services he needs to never be that victim again? And honestly, what can we
look at for this defendant to do the same thing? It doesn’t help us to send somebody to jail and do nothing else. They’re going to get out. If we can somehow figure out a way to make how we handle this case appropriate to who that defendant is, then that’s a success. If I don’t ever see them again, that is a success. And I think that’s one of the things that’s very frustrating for us at times. We don’t see the success stories. We see the ones that repeat those crimes. We see the victims that come back again and again. But I think success is when they change, and it doesn’t happen again.
[00:17:34] CA: You’ve just talked to us about lots of reasons, why a victim wouldn’t want to prosecute and very valid reasons that you’ve outlined.
But let’s talk about some of these cases where victims don’t want to prosecute, but you continue to prosecute anyway. Explain what those cases are and why you make the decisions to proceed in some of these domestic violence cases where the victim does not want to participate.
[00:17:57] WL: I’m going to answer that question in reverse order. First why we prosecute if the victim doesn’t want to prosecute, which is a question I’ve heard for twenty-five years. If she doesn’t want to do anything, what’s it to us? If she doesn’t want to come in and what’s it the state’s business? Well, it’s simple. It doesn’t just affect that victim. Uh, it affects so many other human beings and human lives.
First of all, I think it’s important to prosecute a case without victim participation because of the message that it sends to the two people that are with us at that time. We tell that victim we’ll believe you. We don’t want you to be hurt again. And we’ll fight to try to help you in any way that we can, whether or not you are ready.
I tell every victim that comes in and doesn’t want to prosecute. If at some point in time you feel strong enough to be able to do this, I’m not going to go, oh my gosh, she came in a few months, weeks, years ago and didn’t want to do anything. So, I don’t believe a word she says. I’ll always believe her. If there is evidence to, to establish that this crime occurred, we’ll never turn our back on that victim.
Secondly, you’re sending a strong message to that defendant. She may not be ready to, but we’re certainly going to try to utilize this if we can’t prosecute it at this time to change, to get some help, to try somehow figure out, because we’re always going to attempt to hold you responsible and accountable for this.
I think that’s important for them to walk out of there knowing. I think though, other things that people don’t look at is that victim is clearly not the only one affected. First of all, law enforcement, the most dangerous calls they go to are domestic violence calls where emotions are high, there are can often be firearms involved.
Those officers are arriving at a point when things are at their, their highest point in emotion, are at their most volatile. More officer-related shootings occurred at a domestic violence call than any other call. Also, with regard to law enforcement, if you do a background check with regard to officer related shootings, where an officer has been shot or killed, if you go back into those defendants’ backgrounds so often, they’ve got a domestic violence background, and very often they’ve got a background in strangulation. It’s very interesting when you dive back into it, these are the guys, and I say guys with regard to this, because strangulation is a gendered crime and 94% of crimes committed by strangulation are male. So, I’m completely comfortable saying these are the men that kill police officers in the line of duty. There’s a danger in fatality with regard to those particular abusers that you have to look at and pay particular attention to and do your best to prosecute. Also, you have to look at the community, when you get domestic violence, fatalities, domestic violence, workplace shootings, things like that, so often 20% of victims in domestic violence homicides aren’t the victim themselves. They’re a co-worker, they’re law enforcement, they’re a bystander. When these defendants go off the rails, so to speak, they’re taking out other lives as well. And that’s affecting the community. Mass shootings. Again, if you look back at those mass shootings, you’re going to find domestic violence in backgrounds of majority of them.
But I think the most important reason we prosecute without the victim wanting to is the victim is not the only one in that home, more often than not. There is a little boy or a little girl, somewhere in there, listening to everything that’s going on. And that’s a little girl that’s going to be a victim. And that’s a little boy that’s going to be an abuser. It is almost guaranteed. I had a case last week where a seven-year-old called 911 twice, a seven-year-old called 911 because daddy was strangling mommy. That mother never came to court. That police officer who talked with that child did. We were able to revoke that defendant’s bond without the participation of the victim and get those cases through the grand jury, the new cases, all because of officer participation and evidence-based prosecution.
And that’s the kind of abuser that, with or without the victim, you want to focus on and use your resources on because they’re the ones doing so much damage, not just to that victim but to the next generation.
[00:22:09] CA: And you’ve done a great job of talking about how domestic violence really isn’t just a private crime that occurs in a home. It affects so many people in such a large circle. Uh, the entire community is affected, and our job is to protect the community. So, um, domestic violence is something that is very important. That we do prosecute and prosecute to the fullest extent. You’ve talked about a lot that is very heavy. Um, a lot that to our listeners. Um, it’s probably a lot of good information, but also very heavy. And so, in listening to you talk, it just brings to mind a question of as a domestic violence prosecutor, what keeps you up at night?
[00:22:49] WL: I’ll be honest, when I first started doing this 25 years ago, I found it very difficult to separate work from home.
And I took a lot of the trauma home with me. At some point in time, you realize that you’re not doing anybody any good, if you can’t separate it and compartmentalize it. Once I think that happened, it made it a lot easier for me to focus on the work at work and then just walk out. I’m also so lucky to work with the people that I work with. We share a lot of these experiences, especially our victim witness coordinators. Heather Houbre and Kelly Wilson are our victim witness coordinators in the Domestic Violence Unit. And I always say in joke that, you know, the attorneys are merely the OBGYNs that walk in at the end and grab the baby and get the glory. But the victim witness coordinators are the true nurses that are there holding the hands, helping, sharing the tears.
We’ve got victims that’ll call Heather or Kelly months after their case has been resolved, just because they made such an emotional connection with them. So, you talk about secondary trauma, you know, those young women deal with that every day. But I think the fact that we work with people that share it.
So, I think at this point, you know, the support and the ability to leave it at work, doesn’t keep me up. What does keep me up now are two things in particular. When we have non intimate partner violence, the majority of those are parents and children as say, children, we’re not dealing with children. Of course, we’re dealing with adults, but adult children of parents and usually those defendants are a lot of times, those defendants are either struggling with addiction or they’re mentally ill. By definition, if we have them, they’ve done a violent crime, usually against a parent. The parents are frustrated and at their end, especially when it comes to mental health issues because they’ve searched, and for years, probably that child’s lifetime not been able to get assistance, true assistance. That bothers me, those cases bother me. And the other thing that bothers me and I was speaking with them, Danielle Jones, this morning about
this in particular. It is terrifying when you’ll get, you’ll see something on the news or a friend will call and say, there’s been a DV homicide.
You immediately go, did I handle that? Has that been a case I’ve touched? Did I do the wrong thing? Did I somehow, was I not hard enough? Did I let this person out? And this part of decisions that we have to make with every case and some of those decisions agreeing to probation. And you hear that call go out and you think, is this someone that I have allowed to, to hurt this person again? I mean, clearly the actions are the responsibility of the actor, but did, uh, did I drop the ball?
[00:25:49] CA: Sure. I’ve been part of that process. Did I do the right thing? Um, I think that is probably something that’s very heavy for all prosecutors. Because we all do really, uh, affect people in their daily lives and make decisions, um, that affect people down the road.
And so, it’s, it’s always a scary place to be. Something that you talked about in your answer. You were talking about victim witness coordinators, and the role that they play. Can you kind of expand upon that and tell our listeners exactly what victim witness coordinators are? And what they do, especially in your unit where they are so hands-on with these victims.
[00:26:27] WL: Oh, I can talk about these women all day long. Um, what happens is this. When the victims contact our office, they contact the victim witness coordinators. Um, the victim witness coordinators also call the victims, let them know the court date. And if they have any questions, talk to them about the issues of bond conditions and the fact that there can be no contact. And then through the process, it’s the victim witness coordinators that is the main conduit of information between the victim and attorney. When they get to court, the victim witness coordinator is the one that goes downstairs, speaks with them again, listens to why that human being has been brought into that courtroom. And very rarely is it not extremely traumatic. I think, especially something that is so difficult that the victim witness coordinators have to deal with every single day, all day long, sometimes all night long. I know that, um, Heather had got a call last night at 11 o’clock from a victim’s mother who had, uh, you know, was very traumatized about something that the defendant had done. During COVID a lot of these cases by necessity have been set out for months. You could talk six, seven months from the time of the offence to the time it gets into court the first time. Those conditional releases are still in effect.
That means the defendant is kept away from the victim and the family. Well, for a lot of these cases, that isn’t necessarily what would have happened once we’ve
gone to court. The majority of them would probably have been resolved in a way where there could have been communication again, but through with counseling, with probation.
So, we’ve got victims that are calling our victim witness coordinators daily saying I can’t pay my bills. My children want to see their father and they’re taking on this role themselves to calm these people down, to try to explain the process to them. That’s extremely hard.
[00:28:16] CA: As the attorneys and the victim witness coordinators walk through the system with these victims. Ultimately, we end up with a case in court and we end up with some type of finality to this case and not all of these cases end in conviction. Sometimes when they end in conviction there’s jail time, sometime there’s not. In domestic violence cases, do defendants most often end up in jail? Or do they most often end up being provided some type of service?
[00:28:50] WL: They most often end up receiving some top of service. Now kind of like back to the, what keeps you up at night? I know we all know safely putting somebody in jail isn’t going to change a behavior. Now, there are some that’s where I start. I will start, when I look at a defendant, that’s got a long history of having the shot before, has a long history of probation or have a history of not doing what they were supposed to do and re-assaulting the victim.
If you’ve got somebody that has had that opportunity before then that ship has sailed. I’m looking at jail time for that person. We’ve given them that ability to get counseling and they’ve not taken it. And they’ve committed another violent act. Again, it’s all shades of gray. You’ve got people that are in their fifties that had a very first charge ever. It’s a situational issue where factors came into play that caused that person to do this act. They have to be held accountable for it, but that’s not the same as the person that’s been battering this victim for years. That somebody, that you look at, what brought them there that day?
And we try to determine what they need. And that’s when we look at mental health counseling, that’s when we look at drug and alcohol counseling, that’s when we look at batterer’s intervention or anger management, which are two very different things. I think people have this concept that anger management is the same thing, as batterer’s intervention. It’s not. If I am a defendant and my anger comes out in sort of a shotgun approach, I will be just as mean to the guy at the service station, as I am to my wife. That’s an anger management issue. That’s not a true batterer. If I’m at work all day and I’m just the nicest fella you’ve ever met. And I come home and the power and control, and the violence
comes out towards my significant other, my intimate partner. That’s a batterer. They need a very different type of counseling and there are certified batterer’s intervention programs that we send them to. So, even within the context of the defendant themselves, there are different types of counseling that we send them to. They’re all very different. None of them. I have prosecuted so few defendants that you can look at and say, oh, they’re just altogether bad. They’re just this horrible human. They’re just, there’s nothing that can be done here. That extreme. And then the other extreme is, you know, of course this is someone that’s been unjustly accused. Most of all the rest are right in the middle. And each one of them need very particular consideration to figure out the best thing to do because just sending them to jail just puts them out here. That’s not going to change a thing.
[00:31:23] CA: I have heard you in the past often talk about domestic violence and say that to you it’s really not a woman’s issue. It’s really more of a man’s issue. Can you talk a little bit about why you think that and what that means to you?
[00:31:40] WL: I think that it’s such a societal term. It’s so ingrained in us as a society that you don’t even think about it anymore. But when you think about domestic violence and in some ways sexual assault is kind of, or it’s definitely viewed as a woman’s issue.
And once you designate it as a woman’s issue, then that kind of gives the men in society the ability to not participate in the dialogue to end it or to take it more seriously. What happens then is they’re not at the table to assist in this cultural shift that has to be done before there’s ever a true change in domestic violence. It’s a man’s issue when 85% of batterers are men, that’s a man’s issue.
There is an absolutely fabulous Ted Talk. His name is Jackson Katz. When I watched it the first time, I’m like, yes, yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly right. He is completely on point in a million different ways about silence from men in the community completely removes them from any sort of responsibility. And then it just turns into, I hate to say it, just a woman’s issue.
So, I think when we tackle that, when we open that dialogue, when we start talking about it in more of a sense of a human issue, then that can change everything, but we don’t do it. We’ve got to start focusing on the abuser and not the victim. If I’m walking down the street and I’m abducted and I’m hurt, no one shifts the blame to me. It should be the exact same in a domestic relationship. The more we can talk about it, the more we can shift that focus, I think the more we can actually come across some great change, it’s gotta be a cultural change.
[00:33:31] CA: And speaking about changes and changes to domestic violence laws. That’s something else that you’ve been passionate about.
You have, uh, been someone who’s been very active and supportive in legislative reform as it relates to domestic violence. Can you talk about some of the recent changes in the law that had been helpful to you and your ability to prosecute these domestic violence cases?
[00:33:53] WL: A couple of really great changes that have happened is one, um, change is with regard to a conditional release violation. Now it’s not just a violation that you can be taken into custody on is actually, uh, a misdemeanor where they can be charged with the crime.
[00:34:07] CA: Explain what a conditional release violation is. Some of our listeners might not know what that is.
[00:34:12] WL: If you’re arrested for a domestic violence charge, then the magistrate fills out a conditional release form.
It basically is conditions that when you’re released, you have to comply with. In every domestic violence case, the minimum of those conditions should be no contact with the victim, no assault of behavior against the victim. Sometimes no going around the home of the victim, even if that’s the defendant’s home, he or she has to stay away during the pendency of the case.
There can be other conditions added. In stalking charges, especially we oftentimes requested GPS. I personally think stalking, although a misdemeanor may can be aggravated can rise the felony level, but most often cases are, are misdemeanors. But to me, there’s some of the most dangerous cases that we see, because we’re talking about someone that there’s an obsession a lot of times.
So, we will ask for GPS to be part of that condition. He can’t be released until he gets it, or he, or she gets a GPS attached. Firearms. Not being around firearms is another condition that can be attached. So, let’s say you’ve been released, you signed this form. I’m not going to do any of these things.
And then you do them. We find you at a traffic stop with that victim. The victim’s not being assault. But the victim is with the defendant who has been ordered to stay away from her. Now that’s a whole new charge before it was a violation of that release and you can take them into custody and hold them without bond, but now you can actually charge them for violating that because they violated an order from the court.
Whether or not that victim is in there voluntarily makes no difference. We lose a lot of cases because these defendants are reaching out and trying to be loving and affectionate towards that victim. I’ll never do it again. And when that happens and there’s contact, that contact is of violation period.
Another recent addition to, and the legislation that has been extremely helpful to us is prior to last year, I’m listening to a jail call and, oh my gosh, I listened to them all the time. And what I hear is don’t come to court, whatever you do, don’t come to court, call her, and tell her not to come to court, tell her she knows what to do.
She can’t come in here. If she doesn’t come two times, then I get out. As frustrating as it would be to listen to that, there’d be absolutely nothing that could be done about it because there was no threat of force being given. He wasn’t saying, if you come to court, I’ll kill you. But we’ve talked a little bit today about how a domestic violence relationship is very different, especially in intimate partner relationship.
You’re talking about someone that controls so much of that victim’s life or has been someone that’s been abusive to the victim for years. So again, it’s very different for me to call you a stranger and say, don’t come to court. When someone stole your car, it’s going to be like that guy’s crazy. Of course, I’m going to court.
But for me to call you after I’ve been abusing you for years and say, don’t come to court, that’s a threat in and of itself. So, we were able to change the law from just coercion to coercion or persuasion of a witness. So, when we get those jail calls. Let’s say that victim listens to him and doesn’t come to court.
Now we have a complete standalone offense that we can prosecute and the goal at that point is to keep them in jail. We can use that to have a no further trouble to have a batterer’s intervention requirement. We can use that standalone charge without the victim to try to again, figure out a way to get that defendant get what he, or she needs to not do it again, whether a victim ever crossed the threshold of this building. So that has been wonderful.
[00:37:56] CA: So, we’ve talked about some of the services available for defendants in lieu of jail, but what services are there for victims of domestic violence?
[00:38:02] WL: We are so fortunate in Knox County to have the Randall E. Nichols Family Justice Center.
Actually, it’s one of the first family justice centers in the country. It’s been there for, oh 11 years now, I think. And I still think it’s one of the best kept secrets in Knox County. It is a huge resource for victims. And our victim witness coordinators, um, here in our office always will direct victims, and,we’ll ask them if they’ve had contact over there, because once they go to the family justice center, under one roof, they have the ability to have contact and services through Knoxville Police Department, the Knoxville Sheriff’s Department, Legal Aid of East Tennessee, the YWCA, which is of course just an amazing group of advocates and support for domestic violence victims and the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, Adult Protective Services, ChildHelp, Goodwill, other agencies that when the victim walks in, she fills out a questionnaire. She goes through a process where she tells exactly what she or he are looking for or need. Housing, shelter, childcare, counseling, with regard to children, which is huge. That’s another aspect that I try to talk with every victim about if they have children, how important it is that that little boy go into some sort of counseling because they’ve seen things and have images in their mind that they’re not going to remove just by a parent’s love. They need to talk to a professional. They can get that information from the Family Justice Center. If they want to proceed with a warrant, they can talk to again KPD or the Sheriff’s Department.
If they want an order of protection, they can get it all done there. They don’t have to go back and forth to this building. Um, they actually will fill it out for them then and file it for them. They can take their children. There’s a place for the children to be while they’re being interviewed. It truly is an amazing resource for this area.
And I wish, I wish more people knew about it. I will talk about the advantages of that building all day.
[00:40:08] CA: Well, we have certainly covered a lot of ground related to domestic violence today. Having said that, is there anything else that you feel our listeners would need to know or anything else we didn’t cover that you’d like to add?
[00:40:20] WL: We talked about legislation that we’ve done. There’s still, there’s some legislation I’d love to see. I think that I talked a little bit earlier about, and again, this can, I could go on for days and days about the next topic. So please get the hook out and drag me out if you need to. But the vast majority of cases that we prosecute in felony court, and I mean the vast majority, our cases where a defendant has strangled the victim. It is so common in domestic violence relationships. There’s a lot of reasons why you see them come up in
domestic relationships. It’s a very up close and personal crime. It’s also the ultimate form of control. You’re basically controlling that victim’s next breath.
And again, it’s, it’s a gendered crime. 94% of defendants that strangle are, are men. It’s extremely effective. We’ve all been in a situation where we’d been out somewhere and we’ve been at dinner and, and just that second, we, we get choked. All of us have been there for just a very few seconds.
There’s nothing better, you can just describe it as terror. Terrified when you can’t take that next breath. So, what you have to do is imagine your intimate partner, a few inches away from your face, basically looking you in the eye and controlling your next breath. They’re not doing that most of the time to take that victims life.
They’re doing that to show that victim that at any time they can take that victim’s life. It is extremely effective. It is so difficult to prosecute. The legislature just a few years ago, made strangulation of felony. And I’ll tell you something. When Tennessee legislature gets it right. They got it right. We now have the toughest law on the books in the country with regard to strangulation, not only strangulation to class C felony, just attempting to strangle someone. It’s a Class C. It is not only attempting to block the breath of the victim, it’s also the circulation of the victim. Which is so easy to do. Four to five seconds of applying pressure to a victim’s neck will render them, can render them unconscious. 10 seconds or more they’re just out. Death within a few minutes.
And it’s so easy. Basically, the amount of pressure that it takes to open a can of soda is the amount of pressure it needs to occlude blood flow. That is remarkable, which means most of the time it leaves no marks. Our legislature even wrote into the statute, whether or not there are any signs of injury or whether or not there is any attempt to, or any intention to cause serious bodily injury.
That’s a strangulation. We, we really met that challenge strongly. So, one of the, um, times at you’ll see strangulations events occur become more frequent, believe it or not is when a victim is pregnant. There’s a lot of reasons I won’t go into, because again I can talk about it all day. Anytime a victim is strangled during a pregnancy, there are physical consequences that could occur to the unborn child. Miscarriage is not uncommon after strangulation event. A personally think there should be legislation passed where if a victim is pregnant at the time, she’s strangled that it should be a higher classification of a felony. I think it should be a class B felony. You’re not dealing with one victim at that time, you’re dealing with two. And another area that I would love to see the
legislation, um, take a good look at is anytime there’s a domestic violence event that occurs within the presence or earshot of a child. The damage that is inflicted then is again, the ripple effect is huge. I don’t mean that it should be a separate offense, but as you know, there are enhancement mitigating factors.
If you have a defendant that has been convicted of a crime, you go to a sentencing hearing and the judge can look at enhancement factors and say, you know, this, this happened at this time. And I think he should maybe get a little bit more time because of her. I think you should be higher in the range. I think anytime a child is within presence or earshot of a domestic violence act, it should be an enhancement factor.
And I think the judge to be able to look at that and go, there was a child in the room when you did this, you know, we’ve, we’ve done a lot of great things. There’s been a lot of really wonderful laws that have been passed that have strengthened our ability to fight domestic violence. But those are a couple of my goals.
[00:44:36] CA: Thank you so much, General Lane, for sitting down with us today. Um, I know that the information that you have given has been invaluable to our listeners. So, thank you so much for being with us today.
[00:44:45] WL: You are so welcome. Anytime.
[00:44:51] CA: In closing, we want to encourage the community to help prevent crime and promote public safety. Domestic violence can affect anyone. If you suspect that a friend or colleague is experiencing domestic violence, speak up. Have a conversation with that person, encourage them to seek help. However, be willing to remain a friend. Even if that person chooses not to leave the abuser. Remember isolation from friends is often exactly what abusers try to achieve with their victims. If you or someone you know, is experiencing abuse, please reach out to a family justice center in your area. Information on the family justice center here in Knox County can be found at fjcknoxville.org.
If you want to learn more, we’ve included links to sidebar conversations in the show notes. Don’t miss out on more behind the scenes content.
Approximately 80% of all crimes which occur in the State of Tennessee are drug related. District Attorney General Charme Allen and Assistant District Attorney Sean McDermott discuss the impact of drug use in Knox County and the types of cases assigned to the Felony Drug Unit. Listeners will also learn how the Office is working in collaboration with the community to curb the drug and overdose epidemic.
Knox County, TN Resources:
If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction, visit http://all4knox.org/ for community resources.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
For Sidebar Conversations, visit
Note: Generally Speaking is intended to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the podcast which includes emphasis and tone. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
[00:00:00] CA: Welcome. Hi, I’m Knox County District Attorney General. Charme Allen. Thank you for joining us on Generally Speaking, where I will discuss important issues impacting public safety with expert frontline prosecutors who are seeking justice each and every day. The District Attorney General’s Office can sometimes seem shrouded in secrecy.
This is most often due to ethical rules that prohibit us from discussing pending cases. Our goal is to pull back that perceived curtain and tell you exactly who we are and what we do in the pursuit of justice, both in the courtroom and the community. Generally speaking, of course!
Welcome to Generally Speaking, a podcast where in each episode we examine specific types of crimes through the lens of our special prosecution units in the District Attorney’s Office. In this particular episode, we will be discussing drug prosecutions. And as always to begin, I’d like to give you a little statistical background on what the drug scene looks like in Knoxville at the time of this podcast.
Currently in the state of Tennessee, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation gives us the statistic of 80% of crimes have some drug-related nexus. That statistic would be true in Knoxville, as well. For more than a decade, our community has been overwhelmed by overdose deaths. We experienced a sharp increase in the number of overdose deaths since the data began being tracked in 2010. We saw our first decrease in 2019 after years of local partnership involvement with various intervention and prevention programs. However, during COVID-19 we have seen another rise in our overdose deaths here, locally. Fentanyl continues to be the top drug found in our drug-related deaths, followed by opioids, methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine. Our Felony Drug Unit was assigned approximately 659 cases in 2020. This unit prosecutes drug traffickers, drug trafficking organizations, and drug distribution cases involving overdose death victims.
On today’s podcast, we have the team leader of our Drug Prosecution Unit, Sean McDermott. Welcome, General McDermott.
[00:02:32] SD: Thanks for having me on.
[00:02:33] CA: General McDermott has been in our office since 2009 as the team leader for the drug unit. He oversees three other prosecutors and three victim witness coordinators and secretaries who do the work of the Felony Drug unit each day. As the team leader, General McDermott deals, not only with drug prosecutions, but also overdose death homicides, and nuisance cases.
And, in addition to all of that, General McDermott is also our office’s public information officer. Let’s begin our direct examination. As I mentioned in the opening statements, the TBI reports that 80% of crimes in Tennessee have some drug-related nexus. What types of crimes are included in this percentage?
[00:03:19] SD: I think when you hear the number 80%, that seems like a huge number to a lot of people. But when you look closer at it and you break down the different categories that drugs touch, as far as criminal cases, it starts to make sense. In that 80%, obviously, we have drug distribution cases with trafficking of drugs, selling of drugs, but we also have drug possession type offenses.
In addition to those, we also have crimes committed while people are under the influence of drugs. Think things like DUIs, public intoxication, DUI is commonly thought of as drunk driving, but increasingly, we see more cases of drugged driving for driving where there’s a combination of both alcohol and drugs in someone’s system.
There’s also a number of cases that we get where assaults or vandalism or other types of offenses are committed while the offender is under the influence of drugs. There’s also a whole set of crimes that are committed by individuals who are trying to get money to obtain drugs. So, these are a lot of property offenses where people breaking into homes and stealing things or shoplifting in order to trade those items for drugs or sell those items to get money, to get drugs and support their own habit. We also see violent crimes committed around the drug trade. There are robberies where individuals try to steal drugs from what is their competition, rival drug dealers, uh, there’s drug debts that cause, uh, violent retribution.
There’s also robberies or murders that occur during drug deals that go wrong. So, we see all sorts of different offenses that are committed are in and around
the drug trade. And so, when you look at it from that view, that 80% number starts to make sense.
[00:05:02] CA: And obviously here in our office, the drug unit doesn’t handle 80% of all the crimes in our community. Start by telling our listeners exactly what types of crimes are assigned to the felony drug unit in our office.
[00:05:16] SD: So, of that 80% of those different types of categories, the felony drug unit focuses on drug trafficking. So, drug distribution, and in the state of Tennessee that breaks down into different categories.
So, we have manufacturing drugs. That would be where the drugs are made here in Tennessee. We used to have a lot of meth labs seizures, where people were manufacturing or making methamphetamine here in Tennessee. We also have a lot of cases that deal with the sale and delivery of drugs. So, think a hand-to-hand transaction, an individual to another individual, a buyer seller relationship, but the lion’s share of what we get are cases involving the possession with intent to sell or deliver drugs.
And when we look at those cases, individuals are caught in a variety of manners in possession of drugs. We then have to prove that they possess those drugs in order to sell them as opposed to use them themselves. So, when we look at those types of cases, a lot of the issues that we have are, can we prove they possess those drugs with the intent to sell them and what we look for and what we train officers to look for is indicia of resell. What can you point to, to show that that individual possesses those drugs to sell them. Now, a lot of times we can use the weight of the drugs because the drug trade is a volume business. The more drugs you have, the more you can sell, the more profit you can make. If the items that are commonly used to further that drug trade like scales or razorblades to cut up their product, baggies in order to package and then resell their product.
Those are all things that we look for to show that an individual possesses those drugs with the intent to sell them, not catching them in the act of the hand-to-hand transaction, but catching them, holding the drugs with the intent to later sell.
[00:06:58] CA: So, there are lots of different ways, um, that we can charge drug crimes. So, tell us what are the ways that a drug investigation itself begins or the prosecution in a drug case begins?
[00:07:10] SD: A lot of our cases began in general sessions court, and that’s kind of the initial stage of a three-tiered process for us in state court. We get a lot of cases that originate from traffic stops.
So, a patrol officer working either for the Knoxville Police Department, Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Highway Patrol, they conduct a traffic stop based on some traffic violation, whether it’s speeding or a tag light or headlight being out or window tint violation, something like that. And then that investigation leads to the next step.
Maybe that there’s an odor of marijuana coming out of the vehicle. When there’s an odor of marijuana coming out of the vehicle, they might call for a canine to come to the scene. The canine alerts to the odor of drugs in the car, and a subsequent search reveals an amount of drugs consistent with resale in the car.
So, traffic stops generate a lot of business for us in the felony drug unit. There’s also, uh, drug complaints where citizens call into the police department or the sheriff’s office and say there’s a lot of funny activity going on at my neighbor’s house. There’s cars in and out of there all hours of the day.
They’re only staying there for maybe two minutes at a time. That’s indicative of people selling out of that residence. And so, law enforcement has different techniques that they use to try to investigate what’s going on at that residence. And so that might turn into a search warrant where they ask permission from a judge to go and search that residence, to see if there’s, um, narcotics or controlled substances being sold from within there.
So, we would get those sorts of cases. Um, at the general sessions level, I had a case early in my career where it was a traffic stop, just a run of the mill traffic stop. There were two KPD officers patrolling Minnesota Avenue, uh, here in Knox County and they saw a vehicle driving and the window of that vehicle was completely blacked out.
They couldn’t see through the windshield at all. And so that’s obviously a violation of the window tint law. The vehicle pulled into a driveway, officers pulled in and the individual, the driver, is the sole occupant. He was getting out of the car. He took off his jacket, set it in the car, lock the door.
Officers walked up to him and said, Hey, we’re stopping you because at the window tint, you can’t have the window tint that dark. And he says, oh, I’m sorry. I asked for license and registration. They could smell marijuana coming
off him and, and in the car. And they asked him, hey, do you have anything illegal in the car?
He said, no. They said, well, do you mind if we search? He said, yeah, go ahead. He unlocked the car and offered to open the trunk. Officers are searching the car. And in the pocket of the jacket that he took off was 36 grams of crack cocaine. And so crack cocaine, like I said, the drug trade is a volume business.
Individual rocks of cocaine are sold at about 0.2 grams. And so those 36 grams was really about 180 hits of cocaine and he didn’t have any way to injest crack cocaine. He didn’t have a crack pipe or anything like that. So, in combination with everything else, we were able to prove that he possessed those drugs with the intent to sell them.
And that was just a run of the mill traffic stop. The officer didn’t know when they were doing this window tint stop that they were going to stumble upon over an ounce of crack cocaine. So, we get a lot of cases through traffic stops, search warrants and things like that. The other way that we get drug investigations are through longer term investigations, usually conducted by the organized crime unit.
Those investigators can take more time to piece together what they’re seeing. Maybe they’re getting drug complaints. Maybe they’re able to develop an informant who can wear a wire and make controlled purchases from inside a residence. And they can develop that information and apply for search warrants. Maybe they can take that and then try to identify who’s supplying the individual, selling out of that particular house, work their way up the chain.
We were able to do that in a case, not too long ago, involving a group of Vice Lords, they were the Mafia and Insane Vice Lords. Through an investigation, we were able to piece together who all of the players were, how their distribution organization worked, and we were able to take that case and present that directly to the grand jury.
And in one fell swoop, we were able to take that entire drug trafficking organization off the streets and charge them together and prosecute them together in order to try to get, not just one dealer at a time, but that whole section of dealers off the streets.
[00:11:26] CA: Obviously it takes much more time and effort to do an organized crime type of charge, than it does the traffic stop type of charge. Could you talk about the difference in the numbers of the cases you have? How
many more cases do you have that evolve out of traffic stops as compared to the detailed, organized crime, investigative type case?
[00:11:48] SD: The lion’s share of the cases that we get come from that, that those traffic stops, where officers on the streets gather information, yhey make a stop, they make an arrest. Now that can also be used to help identify other individuals further up the chain. Like I said, we’re trying to work our way up the chain so that we can take the higher dealers off the street. So, all of those traffic stops, all of those search warrants that patrol officers are doing, that can be added together, and the investigators in the organized crime unit can piece those individual items together and figure out how they interplay with each other and then develop leads and information maybe through cell phones or surveillance, things like that, where they can say, oh, this traffic stop had these two individuals in the car.
Those same two individuals were found at this residence. They’re tied together. Who else has been in and out of that residence and start building cases that way? So, we get a huge volume of cases in sessions court, through patrol stops and traffic investigations, things like that. But those lead to larger scale investigations.
[00:12:56] CA: When you talk about these investigations, tell us how the prosecution and investigation of drug crimes has evolved or changed since you have been involved in drug prosecutions.
[00:13:07] SD: Since I’ve been doing this, since about 2009, two significant changes. We’ve seen changes in the types of drugs that we’re seeing, but also we’ve seen changes in how technology has affected the drug trade, the types of drugs that we see have changed over the last decade or so when I first started, you know, I mentioned that case with the window tint, it was a crack cocaine case. We used to see a lot of cocaine cases, marijuana cases, and we would see methamphetamine labs. And that was because people were using pseudoephedrine to try to turn that into methamphetamine. And that’s why when you have to go to the store to the pharmacy to get pseudoephedrine or Sudafed, you’ve got to give a thumbprint and 15 forms of identification before you can get pseudo.
We don’t have that anymore because super labs in Mexico are able to create methamphetamine that is both higher quality and cheaper. So, because they’ve essentially undercut the methamphetamine market, meth lab seizures have drastically reduced. Another huge change has been surrounding opioids. When I
first started prosecuting drug cases, we didn’t have a whole lot of pill cases, and we didn’t have any heroin cases.
We started to see a change in the early 2010s when we would get traffic stops and search warrants and we’d see pill bottles, and pill bottles, and pill bottles with labels from pharmacies in Florida. And what would happen was a sponsor in Knox County, would put four or five individuals in a car, they’d pay for the gas, they’d pay for the medical visits, but they would send those four or five individuals down I-75 to Florida. In Florida, each of those five individuals would hit multiple pain clinics, multiple pharmacies getting multiple prescriptions for largely oxycodone. They would then bring that car full of pills back to Knox County. The sponsor would give each of those individuals, the pills that they needed to last them a month until the next trip.
And then the sponsor would get the rest of those drugs that they could sell. Now at the height of the opioid pill problem, pills were going for about a dollar, a milligram. So, a 30 milligram oxycodone pill would be $30 on the street. An 80-milligram oxycodone pill would go for $80 on the street. It’s a very expensive habit.
And so, people who are suffering from addiction to those drugs needed to come up with a lot of money in order to support their habit. At that same time, we saw a huge influx, an increase in property offenses, a lot of aggravated burglaries, homes getting broken into shoplifting cases on the increase.
People were stealing in order to support this very expensive habit. Around that same time, Florida started cracking down on the pain clinics down there. And so, the operators of those clinics looked at where their customers were coming from and they saw a lot of those people were coming from east Tennessee.
So, they started to open up shops here in east Tennessee. So instead of having to drive down I-75 to Florida to get the pills, they could stay in town and get those same pills. So, we started to try to crack down on doctor shopping cases, um, pain clinics here locally. Also, at that same time, we started seeing heroin that we hadn’t seen before.
I had a special agent with the FBI come to me and he had a stack of cases and he said, I had a CI that we developed, and we were able to buy out of this location and we sent it to the lab, and it came back its heroin. And so, we started looking at that. And what happened was individuals in source cities like Detroit, Michigan, Chicago, they could buy heroin on the street there, bring it down 75 to Knoxville and sell it for four to five times as much money on the streets of
Knoxville. So, they were making a huge amount of profit. What that allowed them to do though, is lower the price on what they were selling their heroin for. Heroin is sold in what’s called a point, it’s a 10th of a gram, 0.1 grams. So, it’s very small amount and they were able to sell points of heroin for maybe $15. I’ve seen it as low as $10 a point. So, think about $10, a point versus $30 for that one 30 milligram oxycodone pill. Those drugs are both opioids. They affect the brain in a similar way.
Many people were having to pay hundreds of dollars a day to support their habit. They had a much cheaper alternative. And so that’s when we started to see more and more heroin being sold here in Knox County. One of the problems with that was though, a pharmaceutical company has a quality control department.
So, when they manufacture a 30-milligram oxycodone pill, there’s 30 milligrams of oxycodone in it. No more, no less. Your street heroin dealer doesn’t have a quality control department. So, the end user who’s purchasing that and putting that in their vein has no idea how strong that heroin is, and like I said earlier, the drug train is a volume business.
And so along the way from one dealer to the next, they try to increase the volume of their product. And so, they cut it with any sort of filling agent in order to increase the volume. The more product you have, the more you can sell, the more money you can make. Well, there comes a point where that dilutes the quality of the drug.
And so, if you sell weak drugs, your customers are going to go somewhere else. So, what started happening was they would add fentanyl into that mix in order to increase the potency of what they were selling. Now fentanyl’s a very strong opioid. It’s probably a hundred times stronger than morphine. But again, they don’t have a quality control department, so they don’t have any idea how strong the drug is until, many cases, it’s too late.
And that’s when we started seeing a significant increase in overdose cases.
[00:19:13] CA: You mentioned that another change was technology. Can you explain how technology has changed the drug trade?
[00:19:19] SD: So, when I started prosecuting these cases. A lot of the drug trade was tied to location. If somebody was looking to purchase cocaine, they knew that if they went to this intersection, this location, somebody would be standing there to sell the drug they wanted. And that’s when we would see a lot
of turf wars over that territory, because whoever was standing at that location, whoever controlled that territory was the one who was going to make the money.
So, we saw a lot of violence associated with that. One thing that has changed is nowadays almost everybody has a cell phone. So, the location where you’re meeting your dealer, isn’t as important as it once was. You can communicate directly with them and arrange to meet wherever you want. That has made surveillance a little more difficult for law enforcement. It’s changed how that operation works and it’s taken away some of the violence that we used to see, uh, in the late nineties, around where drugs were being sold.
[00:20:15] CA: I have oftentimes said that the drug trade is currently in Knox County a lot like the pizza delivery business, actually, because of technology and the way that technology is now used.
Can you talk a little bit about how technology has now allowed the mobility of the trade and the spread of the trade throughout the county?
[00:20:38] SD: Yeah. You can meet your dealer anywhere where the two of you agree. So, it there’s no longer a geographic limitation or a place that you would go to. You mentioned it’s like a pizza delivery model.
I had a case where an individual that was posing as a pizza delivery. And that was his cover. So, if he ever got stopped by police or was seen going to all these different locations, it just looked like he was delivering pizzas and he would deliver pills using that ruse. But it’s something where we’ve seen people meet all over Knox County. You know, it’s not just one section of town, north, south, east, west, you know, it’s everywhere. The Target parking lot, Whole Foods parking lot, all over town we’ve seen individuals meeting, in order to trade these drugs. And law enforcement because of their experience, they know tell-tale signs to look for. They might see one car pull in to a parking lot and then car after car, after car pull up to that vehicle and just quick little in and out of the vehicle, that’s a tell-tale sign that they’re looking for, that drug trafficking is going on at that location.
[00:21:40] CA: And I know that in dealing with drug cases here too, we’ve gotten to the point to where you can actually use this technology to order your drugs and have it delivered to your mailbox that dealers will drive to your mailbox and put drugs in your mailbox.
So, it’s very difficult for law enforcement to be able to enforce the law when it comes to the technology and the innovations that have come, uh, on the part of the drug dealer. So that’s something that, that law enforcement is having to combat on a daily basis. What are some of the common defenses that you combat on a daily basis when dealing with these cases?
[00:22:20] SD: We see a variety of defenses. And, sometimes, in the same case, in the same closing argument, we’ll see multiple defenses. That’s always interesting to watch, but a common defense is that’s not mine. I don’t know how that got there. Well, sir, we just pulled those drugs out of your pocket, your pants pocket, those aren’t my pants. Sir, you’re wearing them, you know, so we get absurd defenses like that sometimes. We also get a lot of defenses saying, okay, well, those, those are my pants. Those are my drugs, but you lawfully couldn’t have searched there. The search was bad. The search was invalid. You violated my fourth amendment rights.
And so, we deal a lot with search and seizure law. The traffic stop was bad. So, throw out the drugs where the search was bad. So, throw out the drugs. So, the search warrant was invalid. So, judge, please throw out the drugs. So, we deal a lot with legal defenses because in a drug case if one of those steps along the way was invalid, then everything that came after that is invalid. And in a drug case if the drugs go, the rest of the case goes away. So, we see a lot of that. So, we get the that’s not mine. Well, okay. It was mine, but this stop was bad. Well, okay. The stop was okay, but I possessed it for personal use, not for resale. And so that goes back to some of those issues of resale that we talked about earlier, where we have to be able to show ultimately to the jury that no, the individual possessed these drugs with the intent to sell them. And so, in that example, I gave earlier where they had 180 hits of cocaine. We have to be able to explain to the jury that someone who’s suffering from addiction, if they’re really using that for personal use, they’re not stockpiling drugs. You know, I’ve talked to addicts who say, I can barely wait to use it.
It’s burning a hole in my hand. So, they’re using it in the car. Right after they’ve purchased. And that, that’s where we see a lot of our impaired driving cases where people are passed out behind the wheel because they can’t wait to get home even to use the drugs. So, we see a lot of it’s not for resale, it’s for personal use or they might say, okay, it’s not mine, well its mine but the search was bad. Well, okay. The search was valid, but it was for personal use. Well, okay. I was selling, but it was to support my addiction. And so, we see a lot of cases where people say, okay, I was selling, but I was only selling because I, myself, the defendant am addicted to the drugs that I was selling.
And I was trying to sell to make money, to support my own habit. And so, we have a lot of defenses where they’re trying to justify at various points. Um, and so we’ve got to be able to overcome all of those defenses because I think as has been mentioned in earlier podcasts the defense doesn’t have to tell us what their defense is going to be.
We have to turn over all of our evidence and lay out that, but they don’t have to tell us how they’re going to defend a case. So, we have to be able to adjust to that on the fly.
[00:25:18] CA: Something that you said, you talked about personal use versus having drugs for resell. Let’s talk about that for a second. As a drug prosecutor, it’s important for you to be able to tell the difference between those people who do possess drugs for personal use, who are suffering from addiction, versus those people who are making a living from selling drugs, those people that are suffering from addiction. Those are the people that you kind of separate out and we give a path to perhaps a drug court, Vivitrol program, or some type of treatment.
Can you talk to our listeners about that and explain to them how important it is to separate those who are suffering from addiction, from those who are actually bringing drugs into our community? And some of the things that we actually offer as an alternative to jail to those people who are truly suffering from addiction.
[00:26:14] SD: Sure. Drug prosecution is a great example of how we can be tough on crime and smart on prevention. We can be tough on crime for people who are trying to profit off the addiction of others. If they are trying to make money selling poison to people who are suffering from addiction, they need to go to prison.
On the flip side of that, we can be smart on prevention. If somebody is selling drugs, or if someone is stealing items in order to support their drug addiction, if we offer them an opportunity to treat that drug addiction, we’ve eliminated what’s causing them to commit criminal acts. And by doing so we eliminate crime; we reduce recidivism or re-offending.
And so, we have a lot of programs, not just for the drug unit, but across the office where we can put individuals, defendants in programs that treat the underlying cause of what’s causing them to commit criminal acts. We have a variety of probation organizations in Knox County, Knox County probation,
state probation enhanced the day reporting center, community alternatives to prison program.
All of those probation agencies have aspects where they can send offenders to treatment. Now, some of that is inpatient residential treatment followed by halfway houses. Some of its outpatient treatment, but there’s a variety of things that they can work with those offenders in order to address those underlying issues and, and keep them from offending in the future.
We also were able to benefit from a grant for a Vivitrol program where individuals were given a shot on a monthly basis. And basically, it blocked the effects of opioids on those individuals. So, if they took opioids, they were no longer able to get high. And so that in combination with other forms of treatment has been proven to be very successful, to change that addiction mentality and the basis for re-offending like we’ve been talking about, we also have a drug court program where individuals are sentenced to drug court. They meet very regularly and they work to hold each other accountable. As part of the program, we work with a veteran’s court. So, we’ve got all these sorts of different opportunities where if a probation or somebody who’s been put on probation, if they take advantage of the opportunities that we put in front of them, we can help them turn their life around.
It’s kind of a carrot and stick approach. We say, I’m going to give you a shot at probation. I’m going to put you in this program. If you work this program, you can stay out of prison. So, there’s a threat of prison, kind of holding over their head and being an incentive for them to continue to work the program.
And they continue to work with them throughout the length of their probation. One of the greatest things that I can see as a prosecutor is when a case gets added to the docket. And it’s at the end of a long probation sentence. I hadn’t thought about the case in years. And the probation officer comes before the judge and they say, judge, I’m glad to report this defendant has done everything we’ve asked them to do. They’ve been sober now for years, they’ve got a stable job. They’ve really been able to turn their life around. And I think if we’re able to do that, we’re smart on prevention, then that’s a case where everybody has won.
[00:29:40] CA: I couldn’t agree more that anytime that we are successful in keeping someone out of the penitentiary and truly turning the life around that, it’s a benefit to everybody.
I went to several of the graduation ceremonies from our Vivitrol program where people who really were in the throes of addiction, who were looking at lengthy prison sentences sometimes were offered that chance to get the Vivitrol shots and to go through intense counseling with one of our local counseling agencies.
And I would go to those graduation ceremonies and these folks would have pictures of their children that they had not seen in years, but because they had gone through this Vivitrol program, not only did they have pictures of their children, they had pictures with their children. They had become employed again. They had reconnected with their family. They had gotten custody back of their children. They had not committed new crimes. They had stable housing, just seeing the graduates of our Vivitrol program and what they looked like at the end of successfully completing treatment for addiction versus what they looked like when they first came into the system where they were just not productive in any way, shape, or form was just really rewarding to be able to be a part of that program and to be able to run that program.
So, I’m glad you mentioned the Vivitrol program. That was something that is very successful, has been very successful here in Knox County. One thing that people often talk about when they’re talking about drug crimes, is that how drug crimes are victimless. There are no victims in drug crimes. Can you talk about why that is truly a false notion?
[00:31:30] SD: I think people often say it’s a victimless crime because there’s no victim listed on the warrant at a standard drug trial. I’m not calling a victim to the stand. The victim is really society. And so, everybody suffers because of this activity, that’s going on. Like we mentioned at the beginning, the 80% of crimes that are somehow connected to the drug trade, but unfortunately, we’ve seen a rise in cases where we can actually name a victim and I’m talking about overdose cases.
We’ve had a huge increase recently and the number of overdose cases in Knox County and for, for the issues that I mentioned earlier, you know, the increase in fentanyl. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs are our number one controlled substance that we find in overdose victims. And so, we’re unfortunately having more and more cases where we’re able to say the drug trade killed this individual.
And then we’ve got to talk to that individual’s mother, their father. Um, and so we’ve got a huge number of cases where, where we had individuals dying because of this drug trade. And when we saw that we knew that we had to
change how we were investigating those cases and increase how we were prosecuting those cases.
And so, we were able to work with, uh, other partners in the federal government, state government, local government in order to create the drug-related death task force. And we were able to have prosecutors and investigators assigned to that task force to treat each of those overdose cases as a crime and make sure that they were investigated as such, make sure that they were prosecuted as such, and then we’re able to prosecute as many of those as we can.
[00:33:14] CA: What are some hurdles that prosecutors face in your unit?
[00:33:18] SD: One of the most difficult parts of that process though, is that we’re unable to prosecute many of those overdose cases, overdose cases are unique in that the individuals that met the victim and the drug took steps to hide that from their loved ones, from law enforcement. And so, we have to work backwards to try to figure out what happened, how they did that. And they, again, they took active measures to elude police so that they wouldn’t be caught in the first place. So, there are many things when we’re looking at overdose cases where we know what happened, or we think what happened, but we don’t have proof to the level that we’re required to put in front of a jury and so sometimes we’re able to talk to an overdose victim’s family and provide them closure saying, this is what happened. However, these are the issues in the case, and this is why we can’t go forward. But sometimes we are able to charge those cases and we’ve been successful in many of those cases being able to charge more overdose cases since the creation of the task force than we were in the years, combined leading up to the creation.
[00:34:24] CA: Oftentimes the drug trade in our community leads to what we call a nuisance injunction. Can you explain how the drug trade leads us to nuisances and what exactly nuisances are?
[00:34:38] SD: Sure. A nuisance injunction is just one of the tools that we have in our toolbox. A nuisance injunction is really a civil process where we are looking at a piece of property. It’s a civil action against the property itself. What we see sometimes is there’s a location, whether it’s a business or a residence, and we keep getting calls for service.
Law enforcement keeps responding to the same location over and over and over. Traditional law enforcement methods have been tried, but they’ve been unsuccessful for some reason. So, what we’re looking at is, can we use this nuisance statute to address that problem? And under the law, the nuisance is
defined as alcohol violations, drug violations, gambling, prostitution, corralling, breaches of the peace, things like that.
We’re not talking about a lawn that hasn’t been mowed or trash being in the yard. That’s a different sort of nuisance that’s handled through code enforcement, but we’re looking at a pattern of repeated nuisance activity. And so, when we identify a location that might be a good candidate for a nuisance injunction, we start gathering information.
We gather the calls for service, how often are law enforcement or EMS personnel responding to this location. We get business records, property records, things like that. And we start gathering information. And if we’ve identified this location as being a good candidate for a nuisance injunction, we put together a petition that outlines all of the factors that we believe this is a nuisance location where there’s this repeated pattern of nuisance activity. Once we have that petition, we take that in front of one of our criminal court judges. We ask the judge for a temporary injunction where we’re asking for permission to board up that property, making it so that nobody else can go onto that property.
Sometimes we see that when we execute a search warrant or make an arrest or a vacuum is created where somebody else can come into that same location and continue this drug trafficking activity. When we get an injunction and board up the location we’re preventing that future criminal activity. And we’re trying to give some peace to the surrounding community, the neighbors around the nuisance location.
So, we asked the judge for a court order to go physically to the location and boarded up. So, the next thing that happens is we, the member of the district attorney’s office goes with law enforcement. We go to the scene, law enforcement secures the scene, they secure it. They make sure nobody’s inside. And then the location is physically boarded up or it’s padlocked, securing it so that nobody else can come in to that location.
When we’re at the scene, I can’t tell you how many times that a neighbor has come up and said, thank you so much. Thank you for doing this. It’s been a problem for years. I remember one time we were at a scene and a mother came up to us. She was a neighbor and she said, you know, I got my little girl a pair of roller skates months ago, but I haven’t let her go outside to skate because of the activity that’s been going on at this house. Thank you for doing this. When that happens, we’re able to take that information as well and go back into the court because after we serve the nuisance injunction, we have to be in court five
days later to explain to the judge what’s going on, what we found and put on proof.
And then after we’ve put on proof, we’re asking to take action in order to get rid of that criminal activity. So that could go a number of different ways. There’s been some instances where we seek a permanent injunction so that the location can never be reopened. In some instances, we can actually seek to forfeit the property, seize it, and then auction it off and turn it into something that benefits the community.
In some instances, though, you know, it might be a situation where there’s an absentee landlord. They don’t really know what’s going on at their property. And we returned the property to them with the caveat that we’re allowed to run a background check on any future tenants before they let them lease the property.
And a lot of times that solves the problem. Um, in some instances we can say, look, if you fix A, B, C, and D, that would alleviate this activity that’s going on and we can address it, problem that way, but the whole purpose is to stop whatever nuisance activity is going on at that location.
[00:38:54] CA: I think that in the past, we’ve done nuisances on hotels, on businesses, on bars, on homes. Can you tell our listeners what the most frequent type of location that we close?
[00:39:08] SD: When we started out, we started looking at businesses and this was at the beginning of the, the opiate epidemic. And so, we started looking at bars and taverns that were really selling more pills than they were selling beers.
But as it progressed over the years, the number one location that we’re looking at are actually residences. As you’ve stated, we’ve done taverns and bars and hotels and things like that. But lately here, residences have been our primary locations that we’re looking at. And, and that’s due in part to the activities of the drug-related death task force, where we’re seeing overdoses occurring at locations and often repeat overdoses at the same location.
And so that’s one of the reasons why we’re looking at residences more so than businesses here lately.
[00:39:49] CA: When you’re at these nuisance locations, doing these closures, does the press show up sometimes?
[00:39:55] SD: We often get, uh, members of the media responding to the scene showing up that the neighbors are calling different media outlets saying, hey, there’s something going on at the house next door.
And so that’s usually how they learned that this is going on. Actually, that kind of led me to some of my responsibilities, working with the press. The officers that we go to the scene with are often undercover officers. They’re in plain clothes. They don’t need their faces on camera, where somebody watching the news can identify them if they’re, you know, under surveillance or conducting surveillance later on.
So, I had to start going and explaining to the media what was going on. And, and that kind of led me down the path where now I’m the public information officer for our office.
[00:40:40] CA: We described the purpose of this podcast really is to pull back the perceived curtain that people have when it comes to district attorney’s offices. So as PIO, can you explain to the listeners what we mean when we talk about that perceived curtain?
[00:40:55] SD: Sure. As PIO or public information officer for the office, I deal with the media on a daily basis and on a daily basis, I tell a reporter that ethical rules prohibit the district attorney’s office from commenting on a pending case or an ongoing investigation.
Those ethical rules exist because every citizen has the right to a fair trial in a court of law in front of an impartial jury. I can’t go out there and comment on some pending case because it has the potential to taint the investigation. It has the potential to taint prospective jurors because we know that the jurors are made up of the citizens of Knox County who watched media reports.
And so, say we had, I don’t know, high profile DUI case. I can’t go on camera, none of us can go on camera and comment on how impaired that individual was. I can’t give the breathalyzer results. I can’t give a blood test. I can’t give them the defendant’s statement. I can’t give them the body camera evidence, the appropriate place for an individual accused of a crime to be held accountable is in a court of law.
It’s not in the media, it’s not in the court of public opinion. They’re held accountable based on properly obtained and properly maintained evidence. Any law professor will tell you that. And so, if I turn over something at the inappropriate time, I might not be able to use that later at trial, or if I make a
statement saying, well, the defendant in this high-profile DUI case admitted that he had 14 beers and then a judge later rules, that, that statement can’t come in during the trial. I’ve made a mistake by saying that to the media that affects the validity of the subsequent trial and prosecution. Our job as prosecutors is to protect and maintain the administration of justice for all citizens accused of crimes.
[00:43:09] CA: Well, thank you very much General McDermott for talking to us today, not only as a prosecutor, but also as our public information officer. Thank you for talking about all the work that you do in the Felony Drug Unit as well. Community response is an important part in my office’s ability to maintain public safety. Let’s shift now to our closing statements, where we will outline how we as a community can help.
In a lot of ways, law enforcement has started to address not only the supply of drugs available in our community, but also the demand. Addiction does not discriminate. And there are dangerous criminals who will stop at nothing to prey on these vulnerable people, including our children. If you or a loved one needs help, please visit all4 knox.org to find community resources for intervention, treatment, and support.
Thank you for listening to Generally Speaking, a podcast presented by the Knox County District Attorney’s Office. You can find more episodes wherever you listen to podcasts or on our website, knoxcounty.org/dag. Be sure to tune in next time for an important conversation about child abuse with General Nate Ogle.
If you want to learn more, we’ve included links to Sidebar Conversations in the show notes. Don’t miss out on more behind the scenes content.
In the fourth episode of this podcast series, District Attorney General Charme Allen and Assistant District Attorney Nate Ogle have an important conversation about child abuse. Listeners will learn how child abuse cases are reported, investigated, and prosecuted, as well as how the community can prevent and report child abuse in their community.
This episode contains content that may be disturbing to some listeners. The contents of this episode include general descriptions of child abuse and child abuse cases.
If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call law enforcement by dialing 911.
Knox County, TN Resources for Child Abuse
To make a report of child abuse occurring in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services website or call 877.54.ABUSE (877.542.2873).
In instances where you suspect a child is being sexually exploited on the internet, make a report to both DCS (either online or by phone) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) CyberTipline.
For information on how to prevent child abuse, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Training:
For Sidebar Conversations, visit https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHCmVM_VNTZZKdahEeLU1w
[00:00:00] CA: This episode contains content that may be disturbing to some listeners. Please check the show notes for a more detailed description.
Welcome. I’m Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen. Thank you for joining us on Generally Speaking, where I will discuss important issues impacting public safety with expert frontline prosecutors who are seeking justice each and every day.
The District Attorney General’s Office can sometimes seem shrouded in secrecy. This is most often due to ethical rules that prohibit us from discussing pending cases. Our goal is to pull back that perceived curtain and tell you exactly who we are and what we do in the pursuit of justice, both in the courtroom and the community. Generally speaking, of course!
Welcome to the fourth episode of Generally Speaking, a podcast series where we examined specific types of crimes through the lens of our special prosecution units. So far, we have discussed homicide cases, domestic violence cases, and drug cases. For this episode, we’ll be sitting down with our child abuse team leader to discuss crimes perpetrated on our most vulnerable victims, our children.
To provide a better understanding of current child abuse data in our community at the time of this podcast, I’ll share the following. In 2019, our office processed and reviewed approximately 1,200 reports of child abuse along with our investigative partners. That’s about a hundred cases per month. In 2020 during COVID our office reviewed just over 1,100 reports of child abuse.
Last year, over 90% of the children that were abused either sexually or physically in our community knew their abuser. Our office also routinely prosecutes more sexual abuse crimes than physical abuse crimes where children under 18 years of age are the victim.
With us today is Assistant District Attorney Nate Ogle. General Ogle joined our office in 2014. After beginning his career as a criminal court division prosecutor, he quickly moved into the child abuse unit and quickly became the team leader. There he has not only prosecuted numerous child abuse cases but he also works with the regional law enforcement human trafficking task force in the investigation and prosecution of individuals who victimized persons through sex trafficking.
Welcome General Ogle. Thanks for joining us on Generally Speaking.
[00:02:32] NO: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.
[00:02:35] CA: All right. Well, let’s begin our direct examination. Child abuse is a difficult topic to discuss, but it’s vitally important for our community to know what to look out for and what to do if you suspect child abuse. I think it’s also helpful for people to understand how child abuse cases are investigated and prosecuted. So, let’s just start with the types of cases that are routinely assigned to the child abuse.
[00:03:00] NO: So, typically, in the child abuse unit we deal with a physical abuse of children. So, that can be in the form of neglect or abuse sometimes, sadly, that turns into a homicide case.
So, we have abuse and neglect cases that are protracted or become so serious that a child sometimes dies as a result. So, we deal with homicides in those contexts. Uh, occasionally an intentional homicide. Uh, in a single incident with a child, as well. Uh, our unit is also tasked with handling sexual abuse cases with children.
So, we do those as well as sexual exploitation, which most of the community would know as child pornography. So, the unit is also tasked with handling those types of cases and working with local law enforcement and also our federal counterparts in dealing with those types of cases.
[00:03:52] CA: Um, those are obviously very heavy cases to have to deal with with. Can we tell our listeners, when we refer to the term children, can you talk about the age range of the cases? Children might mean different things to different people.
[00:04:05] NO: Yeah. So, when we’re talking legally, what we mean is a very small child and infant all the way to 18 years old. So we’re, we’re looking at under 18 all the way to infancy, uh, and we’ve seen cases where abuse, neglect,
sexual abuse, homicide. With all of those ages up to, uh, 18. So very, very difficult situation with children that young.
[00:04:30] CA: The Tennessee law requires all citizens, not just doctors and teachers to report suspected child abuse. Can you tell our listeners what mandatory reporting is and what they should do if they suspect abuse?
[00:04:42] NO: Yeah. So, in the state of Tennessee, there’s a law that requires anyone that sees, uh, child abuse or suspects that child physical or sexual abuse is occurring to report that.
And there’s lots of different ways because you’re required to do that. There’s lots of different ways to make those reports. When we go out and speak in the community and talk about this is either one, uh, by making a referral via the online portal with the Department of Children’s Services. And you can do that there, or you can also go to their phone number and you can call them, it’s 877-237-0004.
For any of those referrals that you make can be anonymous. So, you don’t have to put your name on there, but it makes sure that children in the community are protected. Whenever you file those reports. And it’s very, very important. We don’t have the opportunity, uh, to protect children if people don’t do the right thing and make it known that a child is suffering,
[00:05:45] CA: I’ve heard people in the past say that they don’t want to report because they’re afraid to get involved, afraid they may be sued or drug into court themselves, if the abuse turns out not to be, uh, something that’s occurring. Can you talk about how the law actually protects individuals who report from having that backlash?
[00:06:02] NO: Yes, absolutely. So not only did, like I mentioned earlier, is that person, can that person be anonymous if they, they so desire to be anonymous, there’s also legal protections in place for person that, that files, that sort of report because the law requires that they file it. Uh, they’re also legally, uh, protected from any sort of claim later on about that.
[00:06:22] CA: Certainly, legislature wants to encourage folks to report any suspected child abuse. So, we do have to all work together to protect our children. Well, we’ve talked about the reporting. So, walk our listeners through what happens when a report is actually received by law enforcement?
[00:06:40] NO: Typically, the way that that works is when someone makes a report either online or on the phone of suspected child, physical or sexual abuse. That then goes through a screening process with the Department of Children’s Services in Nashville, and then that’s assigned to the local DCS Office and then it’s assigned a certain level of priority.
And so, if it’s deemed that it’s an immediately, uh, appropriate to, to go out and respond, then, uh, the local law enforcement agency is, uh, contacted whether that be the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Knoxville Police Department here in our community. So, it depends on who has jurisdiction in a particular case and DCS and then that law enforcement agency goes out and they make respond response on the scene. And, uh, at that time they began to gather evidence. They talk to witnesses; they interview appropriate persons and they might gather physical evidence. Whatever is, is necessary, uh, to begin the process of fully investigating and vetting, uh, a particular claim or incident.
And once that’s done, uh, that information and that is then brought before the child protective investigative team, which is, uh, a body that’s put together by statute under Tennessee law. And that occurs here locally. It includes most local law enforcement stakeholders who then review the evidence that applies in a particular case.
And it gives all of us an opportunity to sort of see what’s happened. What’s been done in an investigation and at that time it’s determined whether or not there’s evidence to substantiate a particular claim of sexual abuse, a sexual assault that’s been perpetrated on the child. And after that’s done, if indeed it is substantiated, that information is then typically brought to our office and the Knox County District Attorney’s Office makes a decision as to whether there is sufficient evidence to criminally prosecute an individual.
[00:08:39] CA: If there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, tell us what happens once the prosecution phase begins.
[00:08:45] NO: Yeah. So once, once our office gets that file, and typically what we’re going to do is we’re going to look at the, the file, all the evidence we’re going to vet that and determine whether or not we think, um, we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone’s guilty of a crime.
And oftentimes that also involves sitting down and meeting with the victim’s family meeting with the victim themselves and determining what they want to do, what they want to see occur in a particular case. And once everyone feels comfortable to move forward, and we know that, um, the, the victim and the
witnesses are going to be compliant in the investigation that they’re going to, uh, move forward in the case/
Then we would take that case to the Knox County Grand Jury and present it to them. And if indeed the grand jury agrees that there’s enough evidence, there’s probable cause to believe that the incident occurred, then it would come out of the grand jury and the person would be formally indicted in the Knox County criminal court.
And at that time, we begin the formal process of prosecution. So, I always like to think about everything that occurs before then as the investigative phase. And then once the case comes out of the grand jury, we are in the formal criminal prosecution.
[00:09:53] CA: One of the things that you just talked about in the process is that once our office decides to prosecute, we begin at the grand jury phase. Folks have asked me before, why don’t you take out warrants in these child abuse cases? Why is this different? Why do you skip the warrant phase? Could you tell our listeners a little bit about how sessions court works and why we don’t take warrants in these cases?
[00:10:15] NO: Yeah. Absolutely. So, whenever we take a warrant in a child abuse case, that necessarily means that almost always the child would have to take the stand.
They would have to go in front of a sessions court, and their statement would be on record at that point. And they would also be sitting there facing the individual who perpetrated against them. So, that’s something that we try to avoid if at all possible, because we want victims to feel comfortable.
We want them to be prepared for their testimony and oftentimes in sessions court, things sort of operate at a shotgun level. They move quickly. And we don’t get that same level of, of time with the victim where they feel comfortable and ready to testify. And it’s particularly important with a child because once someone testifies in general sessions court, their testimony is on record.
Um, it’s never going to go away at that point. So, we have to make sure that they’re comfortable when they’re ready to testify. And, uh, that’s definitely an important consideration. There, there are special circumstances where we might have a situation where we need to proceed by warrant. And we do that when it’s necessary.
If we think that the defendant is a serious flight risk, um, if we think that this is a crime is just so heinous, we, we need to get that person in custody immediately. We certainly will do that, but in most cases, because the Department of Children’s Services removes them from the danger, we are able then to sort of slow the process and go through a full investigation and then take a case to the grand jury.
Um, so DCS is very, very integral in that particular aspect because they do allow us to have some time to, to complete an investigation before we have to move immediately. And that prevents us from needing to put our victims on the stand in general sessions court, in most circumstances.
[00:12:02] CA: And that time that you talk about that, that definitely helps us in preparing our case and being more prepared, but it also gives these victims, um, whose lives have often been turned upside down once they make this report more time, uh, before they have to engage the system.
So, it really benefits. I think the children, the victims as much as it does the system to be able to skip the first stage and have more time to get to that grand jury stage. So good points, good points. You’ve talked about part of the process and preparing, uh, the prosecution is sitting down with the family and talking to the family.
And I believe that, um, I spoke in the opening too, about how the majority of these cases, uh, unfortunately these victims are victimized by often a family member. So, can you talk a little bit about how that influences these cases as far as going to trial versus pleading these cases? Because so many of them actually involve children, testifying against family members.
[00:13:04] NO: First and foremost, I think it’s important to consider that these uh, are highly emotional. They’re impactful cases for the young people involved, because like you said earlier, a very high, a proportion of child abuse cases are familial in nature. That means that the person that committed the crime, the perpetrator is very, very likely to be a family member. Whenever we’re dealing with that type of situation we want to do to develop a rapport with the victim. We want the victim to feel comfortable and to be prepared to testify. But oftentimes there are situations where the victim may not be comfortable to testify. They may not want to go that route. So oftentimes if that’s the case is as long as they’re, they’ve been involved in the case and they’re willing to discuss it with us we do seek other ways to resolve a matter. So that might be in the form of, of a plea. Um, but I always made a habit and I’ve always made a habit when dealing with child abuse cases at the outset to make it clear to any victims that
we work with, that ultimately there is a decent chance that the case will go to trial and that they need to begin to prepare themselves for that. So, what I think that that involves is sometimes getting counseling in place, making sure that a child is prepared to talk about the traumatic experience that they’ve dealt with at the hands of another family member. So, they will be ready for that eventual moment when they have to go up and testify in a trial.
But a lot of times people do want to avoid a trial and if it’s possible to resolve a case, we do certainly try and do that because many times families would prefer that all of these things that took place in their home, uh, not be aired out to the entire community. So that’s something that we always keep in mind that we try to talk with victims about.
[00:14:55] CA: And because these are oftentimes familial cases, can you talk just a moment to our listeners about the struggle that these children actually go through? Um, because oftentimes these perpetrators are, uh, fathers, uncles, aunts, uh, people that they actually love. And people that actually provide for and care for them, uh, 90% of the time. But it’s that 10% of the time when that individual is doing something very harmful to the child and how that’s an internal struggle for these children.
[00:15:28] NO: Yeah, I think that you definitely hit a solid point there because what typically happens with young people when they’ve been physically or sexually abused in the home, they’ve dealt with a protracted period.
Uh, a long-term period of abuse being exposed to things that most of us can’t even imagine. So, for them, that creates all sorts of emotional trauma and sometimes there’s physical problems that, that, uh, result from the abuse. And it takes a long time for a child to learn how to process that. It’s hard enough for adults to know how to deal with, with traumatic incidents that happen in their lives, much less a child.
Um, so it does create issues and those are things that we have to overcome when we begin to prosecute a case of this kind.
[00:16:12] CA: I think that most prosecutors can pinpoint a case or a moment where they knew that they’d chosen the right career path. I like to call that an aha moment. I had my aha moment nearly 30 years ago when I was assigned my first case as a child abuse prosecutor.
Have you had any aha moments that you’re willing to share with our listeners?
[00:16:33] NO: Yeah. I think of so many different moments that have occurred during the course of child abuse or child sex abuse trials. But the biggest thing to me in the one that always sticks out, the common thread is a child that’s taken the stand, despite how difficult it is.
They’ve gotten up there. They’ve talked about something that was incredibly difficult for them to process and to live with. For most of these children, this is going to be a sexual experience or a physical abuse situation. And most people, even adults wouldn’t feel comfortable getting up and describing it as a sexual situation in their life to 12 total strangers, much less a child.
So, you’ve got a child getting up there and talking about this and when they do that and at the end of the trial, the jury returns a guilty verdict and they hold that person responsible for hurting them, um, to see that child vindicated, to see the look on their face, uh, when they know that these people believe them.
It’s an empowering moment for them. And I always think of that as, as sort of the biggest experience that I’ve taken away from child abuse is, is that so many kids, they feel helpless and they don’t feel empowered. And, and when they have that vindication, it can really start to turn around things in their life.
[00:17:49] CA: My aha moment was a little different on the other end of the spectrum, because you talk about children. Who’ve been abused their whole life and no one believed them. And so, they finally do have 12 strangers that finally believe in them. Um, my aha moment occurred with a child that had not been abused for a long time. Uh it’s when I first became a prosecutor near over 30 years ago now. And, uh, one of the first cases I was assigned was a young girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom. Uh, as she slept at night, a perpetrator came in and took her from her bedroom, took her out the window and we had posted the next day, her picture on all the local media, uh, everyone was looking for this small child.
There was an elderly couple eating breakfast in a neighboring county, out in the country. And as they were eating their breakfast, they had the child’s picture on their television and they heard a knock at the door. And when they heard the knock at the door, the lady went to the door and answered it. And it was the small child standing at her door in the country.
And the child had on no clothes and she was crying. So, they recognized her immediately. They wrapped her in some of their clothes and called police. We were able to determine who we thought had kidnapped this child, but some
other information that we had, but at the time we had to have the preliminary hearing that you and I were talking about earlier.
Uh, we had arrested by warrant, uh, because we knew this perpetrator was a man that had just gotten out of prison. He’d spent the last 20 years in prison for kidnapping two young girls out of a wedding reception in Memphis, Tennessee, uh, 20 years prior to that and doing the same thing to them. And so, uh, he’d been in our community less than a month and he had kidnapped this young child.
So, we knew we had to, um, I have an arrest warrant for him and this child had to testify and identify him. And so, it was one of my very first cases. And as you can imagine, this child was very traumatized and she came to court for this preliminary hearing, just a mere 10 days after this incident had happened.
And she had a group of supporters with her. She had her family; she had some counselors. And she also had a large group of people from her church with her. And, uh, when she got to court, uh, we explained to her that she had to testify and identify this perpetrator that had kidnapped her. And abused her. And so, she can imagine she certainly did not want to come into the courtroom.
And, um, I went into the court as a young prosecutor. This was one of my very first cases and was scared to death quite frankly, at the time, uh, and went in and told the judge, um, she will not come into the courtroom. I can’t get her in here. Um, but I think maybe if you would let her sit in someone’s lap, perhaps that would encourage her and she could come in. And, of course, the defense attorney objected and didn’t like that idea at all. But the judge, uh, Judge Bobby McKee, uh, decided that that was appropriate. And so, I went back into the room and I, I got down on her level. I bent down, I just remember it like it was yesterday and I looked her in the eye and I said, the judge is going to let you sit in someone’s lap.
You can choose anyone you want and you can sit in someone’s lap. I really thought she would choose her mom. Or her counselor. And she looked me right in the eye and she said, I want to sit in your lap because you make me feel safe. And, um, I remember that like it was yesterday and I remember the impact that I had on that little girl.
Um, and we went into the courtroom and she did testify. She sat in my lap. Um, once I told the judge it was going to be me, that the little girl had chosen, of course the defense attorney objected again, but we overcame that. And so, she
sat in my lap and she testified and it was horrifying. Um, she cried and she did not want to look at the perpetrator.
She didn’t want to identify him. And she cried and she screamed and, uh, I held her, uh, and she bared her head on my chest and cried into my suit. She finally got up the courage to look at him and identify him, which is all we needed, uh, to be able to keep him in jail. Um, he is actually still in jail. Um, but, um, she, she made that identification and we went home and I made it through all that.
And when I went home that night, I remember looking into the mirror and I’d held it together as this young prosecutor all day. But when I looked into the mirror, I saw her tears and her sweat, just ground into the lapel of my suit. It was an orange suit with blue striping on it because I still have that suit today.
It hangs in my closet as a reminder because when I saw that in my suit, I just lost it. Uh, and I cried and I sat down and really realized what an impact we make as prosecutors and specifically, especially in these child abuse cases. And so, um, that was my aha moment to know that I was doing the right thing for the right reason and making a difference.
So, I do think that these child abuse cases are very emotional cases, um, whether you’re dealing with a child that’s been abused for years and years, and no one believed them until you, the prosecutor come along and, and fight for them, or whether it’s a stranger abduction situation like I had, but that’s just a little glimpse into different views from prosecutor’s perspective, uh, in child abuse cases.
We’ve talked about that most of these kids know their abuser, but there are other times that children may encounter those who want to harm them, or other times that children might be at risk. Can you talk about some of those particular times?
[00:23:44] NO: One of the immediate circumstances under which kids, especially these days come into contact with someone they don’t know is online.
We all know that there’s a lot of risk factors associated with children being online. Not only mentally and emotionally, but also whenever a child goes online, most of the time, unless they’re there strictly speaking to other kids, they know, and we know that typically that’s not what happens. They get on apps; they get on other chat functions and they speak to people that they don’t know.
And those people, I always say to assume that those people do not have good intentions and some people might say that that’s a negative view of the world, or that’s the way that I see things as though that’s the best way I think. To protect kids as, uh, as parents in the community. I think we all need to be watching what our kids are doing, who they’re talking to online, because it’s safe to assume that there are adults that, that have negative intentions that are engaging in online communications with your children,
[00:24:43] CA: What should folks do if they suspect that their, their child is engaged with someone online, that they shouldn’t be engaged with, how would they go about reporting?
[00:24:52] NO: Well, if you want to report that, if, if you notice that, uh, that individual is trying to solicit, uh, maybe sexual photographs from your child, or they’re engaging in a sexual conversation with your child you want to report that immediately to the law enforcement agency? Uh, whether that be the Knoxville Police Department or the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, if it’s an emergency situation, call 9-1-1, um, uh, that’s often the best thing to do, uh, and then they will figure out who the, the right law enforcement agency is to make response.
So, you definitely want to put that report in as soon as possible because when you do it quickly, that gives law enforcement an opportunity to intervene. Um, because the conversation’s not being cut off, the conversation is ongoing at that point. And that provides law enforcement a window of opportunity to get involved maybe to assume the child’s online and to continue that conversation in such a way that it allows law enforcement to gather information that might permit them later on, uh, to make an arrest. So, it’s so important to get law enforcement involved in that sort of thing.
[00:25:55] CA: I think that folks think about online activity. Maybe just staying there online that perhaps, uh, it’ll just be their child sending photographs or talking to somebody. I’m sure you’ve had cases where online activity has led to a perpetrator, trying to actually physically meet up with a child. Can you explain how that can escalate and what can happen and why letting your child talk to strangers online can actually end up being more than just online activity?
[00:26:24] NO: Oh, absolutely. So there there’s been more situations than I can count off the top of my head where I’ve looked at investigations or I’ve been involved in investigations that ended up culminating in prosecutions where individuals were online. They were talking to children to young people and, uh, what might’ve started out as an otherwise innocent conversation, the adult then began to groom the child that began to talk to them in a sexual way.
And then that ended up with the adult trying to meet the young person or trying to solicit, uh, inappropriate photographs from the child. And once they do that, once they set up that meeting that gives them an opportunity to engage in sexual abuse. So, we want to intervene in that as soon as possible.
That’s why it’s so important, uh, to make that report to law enforcement. And another thing to think about is even if you think, okay, it’s just online. Maybe my child just provided a photograph and that’s bad enough, but what happens then is that individual can then take and send that photograph online.
They can give it to other people, they can sell it, or they can take that photo and attempt to ransom your child to hold them ransom online, to provide further photographs, or they can say, uh, well, perhaps what I’ll do is I’ll release the photograph. If you don’t meet me in person. So, all sorts of bad, further criminal activity, uh, can stem from a simple online conversation. So, we have to make sure and report that as soon as possible to end any possibility of further violence or, abuse.
[00:27:58] CA: Uh, well, we’ve talked about, uh, child sexual and physical abuse. We’ve talked about child exploitation, online activity. Um, and I stated earlier that you serve on the regional law enforcement human trafficking task force for our office. What does human trafficking look like in our community? And how does that intersect with child abuse?
[00:28:18] NO: Well, human trafficking is, is an unfortunate thing that happens in our community. It happens across the state of Tennessee and essentially what that looks like most of the time, uh, or individuals who, uh, have a group of either young people or women, sometimes men, where they are using those individuals to go out and to make money, uh, through sex acts.
Uh, typically they have, uh, the people that are performing the sex acts. They have them hooked on narcotics. So, drugs plays a huge part in human trafficking and that person, that victim is completely dependent upon their trafficker, uh, that trafficker, they, they use that dependency against the victim, uh, to make them engage in sex acts for money.
So, it’s an extremely, uh, big problem. It’s something that we’re constantly looking at it. How we can fight that, new ways to fight that particular problem. The way that it intersects with children. And most commonly that I’ve seen is through runaways, through, uh, children that have run away from DCS. Maybe they’ve run away from their home.
Uh, they’ve left a facility, that’s run by the state of Tennessee, or they they’ve just left their family home. Maybe that’s because they’re hooked on narcotics. Maybe it’s because they have a bad situation in their family home. Uh, but there’s lots of different things that put kids out on the streets. And once a child is out on the streets and maybe they’re hooked on narcotics, they are easy prey for human traffickers.
That’s where a trafficker comes in and says, um, well, I’ll provide you housing. I’ll provide you drugs. And once a child is provided those things, then they’re expected then to, to, uh, engage in trafficking acts, to do sex acts at the behest of this individual trafficker. So, so important to get involved in, to try and stem that early on.
So, if, if you know, there are runaways, if you see someone that’s a runaway, or if you see a child that’s going through a problems with addiction. It’s so important to report that and to make sure that that child receives the help that they need, because you do not want them to become a part of the human trafficking problem. Because once they’re sucked into that system, it’s so difficult for a young person or even an adult for that matter to get out of it.
[00:30:37] CA: It is we’ve I know I’ve seen through the years, so many adults, uh, like you said, they’re involved in human trafficking that started as children, uh, and have unfortunately been in that system for years.
So, it is critically important for folks to speak up, uh, and report things that they see or hear. So perhaps we can save some of these children and adults from human trafficking. We’ve talked about children. Uh, we’ve talked about human trafficking. Let’s talk about prosecutors for just a second. And I know prosecutors, don’t generally like to talk about themselves, which I know that includes you, too.
Um, but this type of work can really take a toll on somebody. It’s very heavy for law enforcement. It’s very heavy for prosecutors, especially in this type of case. So, can you talk just a moment about how you handle this secondary trauma, uh, that you are exposed to day in and day out as a prosecutor.
[00:31:32] NO: I think the number one thing that I try to do is on these cases, especially when you’re dealing with child sexual exploitation or child pornography, we lean on the experts in that field that the ICAC, which is there are officers that are tasked with doing these types of investigations.
They do all the initial work. And they’re great at providing us reports that show the information that provide, uh, all of the numbers that we need to prosecute these cases. And then as we’re preparing a case, if we know that this is something that we’re going to have to prosecute, we’re going to have to potentially take to trial.
Then as the prosecutor, um, you might have to go in and actually view the material, but, but those officers are so good at their job. Oftentimes, you know, we just try and rely on their initial work to make sure that we minimize our secondary trauma as much as possible. And, uh, another way that, that often prosecutors, including myself deal with it is to simply try and compartmentalize.
I think that that’s a big part of being a prosecutor in dealing with traumatic situations is figuring out ways that we can leave that at work and keep it in its place and then come home. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I mean, I, it’s easy to say. Compartmentalize, compartmentalize, but, um, that’s something that you have to really focus on and you have to think carefully about that this material and these issues and these problems stay here.
And, uh, the rest of my life is over here. And to really focus on that divide as much as you possibly can because otherwise the task of a prosecutor it’s not easy, at all, it would be even more difficult. Um, if you, you brought those things home and I, I know that there are, there have been people and prosecutors that, that have had problems with that in the past, and it’s an extremely difficult thing to deal with.
And, uh, if you’re going to do it for long, you better be able to in some way, at least compartmentalize and find ways to deal with.
[00:33:35] CA: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more as to the compartmentalizing. Um, that’s how I dealt with it, um, for all those years. And I knew that I was coming out of that once I became the elected.
Uh, here’s another quick story, but, um, I was in child abuse for over 20 years. And so, I had become very. Um, compartmentalized. As far as emotion in these cases, you just can’t become emotionally involved in them, or you just won’t be able to function and do your job adequately as a prosecutor. So, um, I had become so non-emotional and these child abuse cases that I really didn’t realize that it had basically become normal to me.
And, um, the first time that I realized I was coming out of that compartmentalization is when I became the elected and, uh, the then child abuse prosecutor brought me a case and said, Hey, I need your opinion on this case. Can we talk through it? And I remember looking at that case and opening that file and having this emotion of oh, my gosh, this is awful. I don’t want to look at this. I’m having an emotional reaction. And that’s the first time that I had had a normal, emotional reaction to seeing this type of thing in so long. And I realized, wow, I really was compartmentalizing during all those years in child abuse. And so, it, it was horrible to experience those emotions, but in a way, for me, it was, um, knowing that I was becoming non-traumatized, um, for lack of a better word from child abuse.
Once I had an emotional, appropriate, emotional reaction to looking at a file. So, I think sometimes it’s prosecuted. We don’t even realize, uh, what we’re doing, uh, when we’re doing it. And, because we are so good at compartmentalizing. Well, you’ve talked a little bit about ICAC, uh, which is internet crimes against children unit with our law enforcement.
That actually looks through our photographs for us, uh, on our online child pornography. But tell me, are there any other agencies in our community that work with us as we fight against child abuse that we haven’t mentioned? Did we leave anybody out?
[00:35:45] NO: Absolutely. So, there’s several organizations, they play an important role in fighting child abuse and child sex abuse in our community. First and foremost, that comes to mind is Childhelp. So Childhelp, uh, they are an organization that does forensic interviews. Uh, they provide medical exams. They provide several different services, including, uh, therapeutic services to children that have been abused.
And they are sort of like a one-stop shop for child abuse in our community. They have individuals that are certified and licensed to perform forensic interviews. And just for our listeners, the way that that works is that’s an opportunity for a child to come in, to be interviewed by a person that has experience in the right types of questions to ask about a child’s trauma.
And it gives a child an opportunity to be heard and for them to be fully interviewed. And for that interview to be not only audio recorded, but also video recorded. So, then we have a copy of that interview and we can review it, engage, uh, in the investigative phase of a case. Uh, whether or not that’s going to be a case that we can prosecute, but I think it also serves another purpose outside of prosecution.
It’s therapeutic in that it provides a child an opportunity to talk about a terrible thing that’s happened to them in a safe and comfortable environment. And then after that’s over, if, if a medical exam is necessary, they can do that there. Uh, and they can also receive therapeutic services through their licensed counselor at Childhelp. So that’s one of our, our big partners in fighting child abuse in the community. Another organization that I’ve worked with through human trafficking is just the local human trafficking coalition. And they do a great job at helping to provide services for not only, uh, young, uh, victims of human trafficking, but also adult victims.
Um, they have worked with, with individuals before that, that are young. They provided housing for human trafficking victims. So, uh, they are integral to our mission here in the community. And also of course, the Department of Children’s Services. I mean, they, they provide, uh, valuable services, not only by getting involved early on and by, by making sure that a child is protected and they’re in a safe environment, um, moving them away, getting them away from their perpetrator.
Um, but they also then provide services to families, to parents, to kids. Um, so they, they really, uh, serve an important role in protecting kids and also making sure that they get what they need after they’re removed from their perpetrator. Um, so all three of those organizations just immediately come to mind.
There are so many others, as you know, in the community. Uh, those three along with, of course our, our team at the, uh, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, our forensic physicians, uh, forensic pediatricians over there. Uh, they do an awesome job at looking at injuries that children have suffered and helping us to come to the determination of whether or not this is a case that we can prosecute and trying to determine what the mechanism of that entry was and whether or not, um, that particular injury was caused by child abuse. And, and that’s so important to get that medical examination and to, to not only for, for the criminal process, but also to make a child feel comfortable to let them know that they’re going to be okay, that whatever’s happened to them is something that, that they’re going to heal from not only emotionally, but also physically.
[00:39:13] CA: One thing that I would say to our listeners, you mentioned Childhelp and Childhelp happens to be, uh, the organization that provides our child advocacy center here in Knoxville. No matter where you are, if you’re listening, if you have any issues with child abuse, please seek out your local child advocacy center because all the child advocacy centers are pretty much set up like General Ogle explained. It’s really a one-stop shop for these children that so desperately need help. I think that we have just about covered all of the
topics today, General Ogle. I truly appreciate you being with us today and sharing your wisdom and knowledge. It’s greatly appreciated.
[00:39:53] NO: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk and I want to thank you for giving me the chance to talk about child abuse and the impact it has on our community and what we’re doing to combat it.
[00:40:04] CA: And, now we’ll move on for our closing statement. The first thing we need to say in our closing statement is please, please do not forget the mandatory reporting information that you have heard today.
The state of Tennessee does have mandatory reporting for everyone. You don’t have to be a teacher. You don’t have to be someone who has authority over children. It’s anybody in the state of Tennessee that suspects any type of abuse, physical or sexual. Please make that report and know that there is mandatory reporting here and that there are laws that will protect you.
You can report that anonymously as we’ve mentioned. Or if you do give your name, there are laws that will protect you from being sued in any type of civil matter. Because really what’s most important is protecting our children. You can find ways to report child abuse. If you need that, on our website at knoxcounty.org/dag. And both the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Street Hope TN here in our community, provide internet safety training for any parent or child that would like any kind of information on how to protect yourselves against human trafficking. Our office also has training opportunities, if you need any kind of information, our office will be glad to come out and do that training for you as well.
It’s our job to protect and nurture our next generation. Thank you for sticking with us on this important topic. For our next episode, we will sit down with our career criminal and gang special prosecution unit. Please join us as we discuss yet another important topic for our community.
If you want to learn more, we’ve included links to sidebar conversations in the show notes. Don’t miss out on more behind the scenes content.
Gangs remain a serious problem in the United States, and local prosecutors and district attorneys play an important role in addressing gang‐related violence. This episode provides a basic understanding of gang-related crimes and the intricacies of trying gang cases. This episode also highlights the definition of a career criminal and how the Office handles these types of cases. Listen in as District Attorney General Charme Allen and Assistant District Attorneys TaKisha Fitzgerald and Ashley McDermott tackle these topics impacting public safety.
Click here to learn how to report crime:
For Sidebar Conversations, visit https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHCmVM_VNTZZKdahEeLU1w
[00:00:00] CA: Welcome. I’m Knox County District Attorney General, Charme Allen. Thank you for joining us on Generally Speaking, where I will discuss important issues impacting public safety with expert frontline prosecutors who are seeking justice each and every day.
The District Attorney General’s Office can sometimes seem shrouded in secrecy. This is most often due to ethical rules that prohibit us from discussing pending cases. Our goal is to pull back that perceived curtain and tell you exactly who we are and what we do in the pursuit of justice, both in the courtroom and the community. Generally speaking, of course.
In this podcast, on each episode, we examine specific types of crimes through the lens of special prosecution units here in my office. This particular episode, we will be discussing the types of cases assigned to the Career Criminal and Gang Unit. To give you a little bit of background about the current situation in Knoxville, Tennessee, at the time of this podcast, I’ll give you some statistics.
Currently in Knoxville, we have over 30 identified gangs in Knox County. In those gangs, we have over 1,600 identified, known gang members. Every public high school and at least half of our public middle schools currently have an identified gang member who attends those schools.
In 2020, there were 474 reports of shots fired in Knoxville city limits. 118 of those reports included an injury. Today with us, we have Assistant District Attorney General Takisha Fitzgerald, lovingly known as TK to those around the office. She began prosecuting cases in Knox County as soon as she graduated from law school in 1998, and most of her career has been focused on prosecuting violent crimes and serious offenders.
We also have Assistant District Attorney Ashley McDermott. She became a prosecutor in the Knox County DA’s Office in 2013 after beginning her legal career as a Sevier County Assistant District Attorney General. Like TK, she has
spent the majority of her time as a prosecutor, holding serious offenders accountable for the crimes that they have committed.
Thank you both for joining us today on Generally Speaking.
[00:02:30] TF: Thank you for having us.
[00:02:31] AM: Thanks, General.
[00:02:32] CA: All right, let’s begin our direct examination. Typically, we start each direct examination or each episode by asking what types of crimes are assigned to your unit. I want to ask you that same question, but first I’d like to start with just a little bit of background by asking each of you, how you came to be a prosecutor in the first place.
What motivated you to serve the public in this way? TK, we’ll start with you.
[00:02:58] TF: When I was starting in the DA’s office, I started as an intern and that was in 1996. And what I remember, uh, that, that had a huge impact in my life was seeing, uh, uh, General Bill Crabtree, Willie Harper, at the time, Willie Lane now, as well as Arnice Adams, they were working on the case, uh, Brittany Daniels. And Brittany Daniels, she was a five-year-old child who was playing on the sidewalk in Lonsdale, minding her own business, just being a kid, and two rival gangs opened up gunfire at each other. And, of course, missed each other. And one of the bullets struck her and killed her. And, uh, that was just such a sad case. And that case, uh, motivated me to have an interest in a violent crime cases, involving gang members.
[00:03:48] CA: Certainly, a sad case and certainly not the only case that we’ve seen like that through the years. So definitely a motivator. Thank you, TK. What about you General McDermott?
[00:03:59] AM: So, I don’t have anything that was like a particular one case that made me want to be a prosecutor. Um, I’ve known that I wanted to be a prosecutor since I was at least in about fifth grade. I remember, um, having like a student, uh, like a day where you, a career day type thing. And I remember the principal coming into my fifth-grade class and being like, Ashley, what do you want to be whenever you’re older? And I, I distinctly remember saying to him, I want to be a prosecutor.
Um, I don’t have any lawyers or anything like that in my family. So, I don’t really know what it was that like drove me towards that. But, um, I have always
wanted to be a prosecutor. All my schooling was directed that way and that’s, like I said, that’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was really little.
[00:04:42] CA: Thank you guys, both, for sharing. Uh, like other jobs in public service, most of the time people are here because they really want to serve their community and I always enjoy hearing our staff’s reasons for why they do what they do day in and out. So, let’s move on to today’s topic, which types of crimes are assigned to your particular unit, the career criminal and gang unit?
[00:05:04] TF: So, we prosecute gang members and in order for us to get a gang case, the person has to be identified as a gang member to be on a list of, um, gang offenders. Um, additionally, we also prosecute career criminals. And so typically, uh, the career criminal, we define them and our unit, we define them as someone having at least four prior felony convictions. Under State law, typically, you have to have about six prior felonies in order to be a career criminal in the state law. But for our unit’s purposes, we have to have four prior felony convictions.
[00:05:39] CA: Okay. So, people who have devoted their life to crime?
[00:05:40] TF: Yes.
[00:05:41] AM: So, typically, with the gang cases that we’re assigned, we get cases that involve violence.
A lot of cases involving people getting injured. Gun cases, robberies, drug cases, things like that. In contrast, a lot of our career offenders, uh, are people that have had a history of things like aggravated burglaries. Maybe they’ve broken into, uh, six or seven houses in one episode, and then they’ve committed a crime at some point later in their lives.
So, the type of offenders that we get in those two groups sometimes are different. Um, the career criminal criminals a lot of times are property-based crimes. Whereas the gang unit, a lot of times, those cases involve, um, cases against people, offenses against, uh, different members of our communities and things like that.
[00:06:28] CA: So, you guys see a wide range of crimes in your unit?
[00:06:30] AM: Yes.
[00:06:31] CA: We get a lot of questions from the community really about gang prosecution specifically. Can you define for our listeners what a gang is and what qualifies someone as a gang member?
[00:06:46] TF: So, a gang under the statute, in order to be, um, identified as a gang, you have to have three or more people, either in an organization, um, or associated together where the purpose of, of this organization or association is to commit criminal gang offenses is basically at least three people that are out here committing crimes.
The types of problems that we’re talking about is it has to be considered a gang crime. And so those gang crimes typically are violent crimes. Um, agg burglaries, drug dealing, uh, weapons possessions. Of your gang group, you’ve got to have at least two people that have prior felony convictions for gang offenses.
It’s pretty defined, uh, under state law. Uh, it’s not just a group of people that we would consider a gang. You’ve got to be at least three people and you’re out here committing crimes. Again, it’s by statute. And so typically you’ve got to have two criteria, uh, under the statute, two of the eight criteria, and that’s going to be typically an admission, uh, tattoos, uh, photographs, uh, documentation of you engaging in criminal gang activity, uh, associating with fellow gang members. Um, it’s, it’s pretty defined under the statute.
[00:08:00] AM: And then on top of that, not only do you have to have all those things, but the particular crime that we’re prosecuting also has to be in association with, at the direction of, or for the benefit of the criminal gang. So, there’s also a requirement that not only are the people part of the gang, but the crime they’re committing has to be connected in some way to that gang as well.
[00:08:23] CA: So there has to be some level of organization.
[00:08:26] AM: Right.
[00:08:27] CA: Okay. It’s not just groups of people. There has to be some defined organization. Can you tell us what gangs actually look like here in Knox County?
[00:08:36] TF: I’d say the gangs, man, they cover the gambit, all races, all economic backgrounds.
They’re as you pointed out in the opening, they’re all over, uh, Knox County. Uh, not one particular area. Um, a lot of folks are on social, a lot of gang members are on social media, a whole lot on social media. Um, but they, uh, they come together. Uh, they meet, uh, either on social media or out in the community, um, different locations, um, public locations, um, and they plan their activities accordingly. Um, they’re just all over.
[00:09:15] CA: We’ve talked about that, you specifically, uh, General Fitzgerald have been doing this for a long time. Has the makeup or the look of the gangs changed over time since you’ve been doing these crimes?
[00:09:28] TF: I would say yes. I would say that the gangs have gotten, um, the gangs have gotten younger.
And so, it seems like when we were starting out that you probably had a lot of the gang members that at least that we in law enforcement knew about tended to be in the, maybe in their twenties and thirties. Uh, it seems like now, um, that a lot, a lot of those twenties and 30-year-olds, I’m not going to say that they’ve aged out of the game, but it seems like the cases that we get for those individuals tend to be more dope dealing.
It seems, seems to us, um, they were going to a lot of younger gang members. There’s a, um, a video that we came across on a cell phone. Where you’ve got this probably younger 20-year-old who pulls up to a basketball court and you see probably six or seven, uh, seven- or eight-year-olds run up to the car and throwing up gang signs and this guy is in the car. He says, yo, you know, these are my east side gangsters. And he gives them like a dollar or two and they’re thrown up basically throwing up gang signs in exchange for a dollar or two. Um, and so it seems like that the gang members are getting younger and with them being young, from reviewing a number of cell phone exams and social media you see a lot of these younger kids with these guns. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of these younger kids with these guns that are driving the violent crime numbers, the issue, they’re the ones who are responsible for the shootings. So, I would say that’s how it has changed.
[00:10:58] CA: So just younger and younger, the gang members are getting younger
[00:11:01] TF: younger, younger, and younger, and they have more accessibility to firearms.
[00:11:06] CA: What about social media?
[00:11:07] AM: You know, it’s not just like on the street corner and if you happen to be, uh, there on the corner of the street, you see somebody doing something there’s a proliferation of, uh, lots of stuff that’s available on social media, where people do crimes or are hanging out with the other members of their gang.
And they’re posting things on social media and representing their group, talking to each other and just very blatantly, and flagrantly posting things on social media, about the gang and about, I mean, it’s used, I think, as a recruitment tool as well, because other people see, you know, these older kids, teenagers, sometimes posting things on social media and then even the younger kids will see that and think it’s cool and they’ll start mimicking that behavior.
And you’ll start seeing those things posted on social media, as well. So, it is a lot more prevalent, especially on social media than it was maybe 10, 15 years ago. When you know, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, all these different things, weren’t as available as they are now.
[00:12:04] CA: Well, your gang member prosecutions are definitely distinct and different from your career criminal prosecutions. And we’ve talked a little bit about that difference. Uh, can you talk about how much time you guys spend prosecuting each one of those in your unit? Like what’s the breakdown of those?
[00:12:20] AM: I would say that probably we have an equal number of career gang cases and career criminal cases that are in front of us, if you’re looking at just the numbers. But if you’re looking at the time that you’re spending on each case, because like we said, the gang cases involved victims, they involve guns, they involve, um, cell phone, uh, reviews and things of that nature.
That the time that you spend prosecuting a case or getting it ready and prepping for a gang case is a lot more than what you would spend on say an aggravated burglary where what your evidence really is, is, you know, what happened there during that specific structured period of time. When you have a gang case, you have victims that you need to talk to, you have, um, social media that you need to go through. You have a bunch of different people that you’re going to have to interview to, to prove that the person’s a member of a gang. You know, see how, how this particular crime was for the benefit of the gang and those dangers. So, your gang cases ended up taking up a lot more time just for prep than your other cases do.
[00:13:22] TF: I just wanted to add to that. It’s not only with the gang cases, it’s not only about prepping the case for trial, a lot of these cases, you’re going to
have witnesses who are reluctant and they are afraid to come forward because the defendant is a gang member. And so, and, and I think that’s important to, to point out this one, we’re talking about these gang cases. What we’re talking about, we’re talking about the offender being a gang member. We’re not talking about, you know, the victim being a gang member. So, a lot of times these victims and these witnesses are terrified of the defendant and his gang about, you know, and so that’s why they are reluctant to come forward.
And so, a lot of times we’ve got to spend hours upon hours meeting with these witnesses and victims, not necessarily talking to them about the crime. Not prepping for trial, but it’s just talking to them about trusting the system and trusting the process and coming forward, um, to be a part of the, the, the prosecution of the case.
Um, and so that is why just so much more time. Um, I, I would agree with Ashley that we spend prepping and preparing gang cases, as opposed to the career criminal cases.
[00:14:24] CA: And part of that, what you’re touching on, I think is that prep time and, and dealing with those, uh, witnesses who might not want to come forward immediately in the beginning. That kind of leads into how the gang investigations begin and how are they different? That’s one way they’re different. Um, could you explain a little bit about that?
[00:14:44] TF: I would say the gang investigation cases typically, a lot of times, um, our, our cases, they will start with a warrant. And so that’s, you know, a crime happens. Um, the police are able to do an investigation, get the person identified and arrest them.
Maybe they’re at the scene or it’s no problem to get them to come to court. With gang investigations, it’s just been my experience that we get a crime identified. And then we started investigating that crime and trying to locate witnesses or any other type of evidence that’s going to lead us to the identification of the offender.
Those cases tend to be worked up and presented to the grand jury. And those investigations in my experience tend to take much longer before we can get a, uh, an arresting, uh, instrument thing than like the career, um, career criminal cases. Um, because, just to me, I think it’s just so much more involved in convincing these witnesses, that it is in the community’s best interest to come forward and stand up to these, um, gang members and prosecute the case.
[00:15:43] AM: I would say that’s different too, just kind of going off of what TaKisha said, is that with gang cases, a lot of times you’ll have more than one defendant. So, they’ll be, you know, two, three, sometimes four defendants that are charged in, um, one crime or in a conspiracy or something like that. And so, it’s a lot, uh, more complicated, more complex of a case than your typical, uh, career offender who for the most part, most of those cases involve one single defendant. And so, they’re different in that way, too. As far as, you know, you have multiple defense attorneys that you’re having to interact with and, uh, answer motions with and, you know, talk to, and discuss the case with as opposed to just one and one of the other cases. So, I would say there are a lot more complex because a lot more people are involved sometimes too, in your gang cases.
[00:16:31] CA: What about career criminal cases? Are career criminal cases investigated differently or the same? How do they begin?
[00:16:38] TF: Going back to Ashley’s example about the agg burglaries.
[00:16:42] CA: So, explain to our listeners what an ag burglary, as you guys are using the term agg burglary. So, let’s tell them that we’re talking about an aggravated burglary and tell our listeners exactly what an aggravated burglary is.
[00:16:54] TF: So, an aggravated burglary means someone has broken into somebody’s home. Uh, with the intent to commit a theft or an assault or a felony, or they’ve actually broken into somebody’s home and actually committed, the theft, felony, um, or an assault as opposed to breaking into a business.
And so, a business is just considered a burglary, but if it’s somebody’s home it’s an aggravated burglary. And so, I’d say an aggravated burglary as an example, because maybe that’s a crime that a number of people have been a victim of, but typically with an aggravated burglary, you know, somebody breaks into your house.
Uh, nine times out of 10, there’s not going to be any witnesses there. That person’s going to break into your house when you know, you’re at work, all your neighbors are at work. And so, there’s not anybody that’s going to see you breaking into the house, see that person breaking into the house. And it’s been our experience, you know, burglars, they no, they no longer leave fingerprints. You know, back in the day, you may be a burglary was solved because somebody knows the fingerprint, but, but that’s just not how it happens.
Typically, I would say, um, a person probably gets caught because, uh, they have done it so many times and they just get sloppy.
And maybe they pawn a stolen item at a pawn shop, and we were able to trace it back to that person. The officer brings the person in for an interview. I say all that to say that once that happens, then we can probably take out a warrant for that person. Um, to me it seems like with their career criminals. They are more likely to, the prosecutor is more likely to start with a warrant as opposed to grand jury presentment like in a gang case.
[00:18:18] CA: For the listeners that have been with us through the entire podcast, um, they probably remember that, uh, warrants are a different level of prosecution. That warrants are charges that we take out and they come in through the sessions level and we go through sessions court and have a hearing at the sessions court level to get up to that grand jury.
So, when you guys start talking about, we take our career gang cases to the grand jury, you’re basically saying we skipped the sessions level, uh, with a lot of our gang prosecutions and we began a lot of our career prosecutions down at the sessions level.
[00:18:53] TF: Yes. And that’s another reason, again, I keep going back to the gang cases but it’s just that these, these witnesses are terrified. And, and so we want to be able to, uh, put them in a situation where they have to testify the least number of times as possible. And typically, we can get that done, uh, presenting the case to the grand jury instead of taking out a warrant.
[00:19:10] CA: How do you two think it’s important for us to set aside a particular unit to prosecute these career criminals and these gang cases?
Why don’t we just assign these cases to everybody? Why is an aggravated burglary committed by a career offender different than an aggravated burglary committed by a first-time offender? And why is a gang case different? Why is it important for your unit to exist?
[00:19:35] AM: Like, I can tell you from my experience in this office, I wasn’t always in the career gang unit.
So I was, um, in the child abuse unit for a while. And then I was in a general assignment unit for a while. And I could tell you had I been given a career gang case specific, like if I had been given a gang case at that time, I would have been like I don’t know very much about gangs, how they work, who the players
are, uh, what the languages they’re using and what the different terms and hand signs and colors and all of those things that you learn when you’re in the gang unit, um, about, um, the gang world.
So, I would say the reason that it’s important to have a gang unit is because there is a, uh, high level of specialized knowledge that you don’t have unless you’re in that unit or unless you’ve learned that. And there’s, um, to get everybody in our office, familiar with all that stuff is almost impossible to do.
And then as far as the career offenders, um, I think that since they’re career offenders, they are probably facing, uh, more jail time than somebody who is a first-time offender. They’re probably, um, more familiar with the system than somebody that’s a first-time offender and they’re much more likely to want to go to trial and just say, well, I’m probably going to get a lot of time.
So, I might as well just go ahead and have a trial in this case. So, I think that the four attorneys in our unit are attorneys that go to trial often. Kind of specialized in, in going to trial. And so, I think that that’s one of the reasons also why it’s important to have a unit that focuses on career offenders.
[00:21:08] TF: And I just want to piggyback off of that.
Again, it, again, it goes back to the, uh, to the witnesses. I mean, we have an exorbitant amount of cases in our office. I think that with the Career Gang Unit, uh, you’re specializing, you’re identifying certain cases that we need to devote a considerable amount of time, um, with the witnesses and prepping the cases for trial and, and with the career, with the gang case.
Again, it goes back to that time. I think that we’ve got to be willing to set aside and devote to these witnesses and victims to just get them to trust the system, uh, to believe in the system. That’s just a whole bunch of time, uh, that maybe other units wouldn’t have to spend with those witnesses because of all of the cases they have.
It is a situation where with gang cases, you know, if you just subpoena somebody to court and they don’t come to court and made that case very easily, could just get dismissed, failure to prosecute. And I think with the gang cases, I think all of us understand, all of us in office understand that you’ve got to be willing to devote, I think, extra time in those cases, just because witnesses don’t want to come to court and don’t want to prosecute that that’s not a reason for the case to get dismissed.
[00:22:14] CA: One of the things you said, Ashley, and your answer was that the career criminals in your unit would get more time on some of these cases.
So, let’s talk about that for just a second, because the community often ask us things like why somebody with so many convictions not already in jail or in prison, why are they still out committing crimes? Can you discuss the different scenarios or maybe some cases to illustrate how it happens that people with these lengthy records are still out in the community committing crime?
[00:22:44] AM: So, first it may be that the person has already been tried convicted and punished for the crime. So, they may have served, uh, an eight-year sentence and then been paroled after they, uh, did 30% of their sentence when they became eligible to be paroled. So, they may have already, um, been prosecuted for that case, been convicted of that case, and serve their time and they are out. And now we’re back again doing the same thing. So, we get people like that. Um, a lot of times it may also be that, um, for whatever crime, uh, that they did initially, they were placed on some form of, um, probation. And so now here you have them again.
And this time you’re asking. Uh, can that first case, we’re going to ask to revoke their probation on that first case and have them serve that sentence. And then in addition to that, have this new sentence run consecutive to the first sentence that they were already serving. So that happens pretty frequently.
Um, but I would say, uh, there’s a lot of cases sometimes, especially with, uh, aggravated burglaries and stuff like that, or burglaries that the person may be committed five or six at the same time. So, they’ve gone into a neighborhood and broken into a couple different people’s houses, or they’ve gone down and they’ve committed burglaries at a couple of different businesses all in the same day or they’ve committed, uh, like, uh, a car burglary where they just have walked down the street and tried to open every single car door on a big, long line of streets.
And maybe they have eight car burglary convictions for that particular offense. So, um, I would say that it’s sometimes they’ve served their time. Sometimes they’re on probation and sometimes, you know, sometimes it’s just that we didn’t get them the first time that, that maybe we made an offer for the person to apply for probation thinking that certainly the court is gonna, you know, make them serve the sentence.
And then the court gives them an opportunity to be on probation and then they messed that up. So that certainly happens sometimes too.
[00:24:47] TF: I agree. It’s not like it’s a situation where you have, someone’s got 30 prior felony convictions and you know, it’s not like it’s a situation where they have committed a burglary, gotten probation, got out and committed, you know, another burglary, gotten probation. It’s not like this happened 30 different times. I mean, I think that typically we have a situation where you have the serial burglar who has just, as Ashley has said is broken into probably 30 homes. And what has happened is that they have, um, pawned something, uh, they’ve gotten identified, or they got caught in the act they brought, um, they, they were caught in the act and they were brought down to be interviewed by the detectives and after being caught red handed, uh, at that point in time, they confessed to committing those 30 burglaries and were able to corroborate that confession. And then they ended up pleading to those 30 burglaries.
[00:25:39] AM: I had a case one time where, uh, this group of individuals would break into houses and they would steal the people’s pillowcase and then fill the pillowcase with everything that they wanted to take from the house. And they had been doing that for a number of months.
Never caught him. Then one day the police, you know, pull them over in a traffic stop. They’ve got like 10 pillowcases full of stuff in the back of the car. And the police were like, that’s pretty weird. And so, through the course of their investigation, they’re able to tie those particular burglaries back to 10 separate houses.
And then let the community know that, you know, if you were a victim of a case involving your pillowcase being stolen, then you need to call the police department and you know, then we can tie it back to these particular offenders. So, things like that sometimes happen too.
[00:26:28] CA: These career offenders are sometimes signature criminals, uh, in that particular instance, and sometimes get away with quite a few crimes before being caught which happens often. TaKisha, you’ve talked a lot about witnesses coming forward.
So, let’s drill down on that for just a second. Lots of times law enforcement officers and, and we, as prosecutors are telling the community, please come forward as a witness. Uh, we need witnesses to come forward to help us solve these crimes. Sometimes they’re reluctant to do that. Recently, we’ve heard some pushback from the community saying we don’t want to come forward.
You and law enforcement, if you would just do your job, we wouldn’t need to come forward when they say, just do your job without witnesses. Is that
realistic? Or is that reasonable from a law enforcement perspective, can you explain why it is we need witnesses to come forward and we can’t do our jobs without those witnesses?
[00:27:26] TF: First of all, this is our community, all of us. So, it’s not law enforcement. It’s just us. It’s us, prosecutors, we live in the community. You know, whatever part of Knoxville you live in or Knox County you live in, it’s all the same community. Our job, we believe, is keeping our community safe. That’s all of Knox County.
Um, so let let’s use for an example, KPD, they send us weekly shots fired calls and emails, and, uh, this past week, we have an email that showed that we had 178 shots fired calls for the year. So far, a lot of those calls are like, drive-by shootings that occur, like at midnight, let’s say that, you know, into a house.
Well, the people in the house, they are asleep. And so, all they know is they wake up to gunfire. They didn’t see who did the shooting. They can’t identify anybody, the people in the house that are asleep. Um, but in order to get that case solved, we need witnesses who may have seen a car drive by, uh, we need a witness who may have seen some individuals posting stuff on social media.
It is unfair for that homeowner to have went through that crime and that crime not be solved because people are saying the community shouldn’t come forward. There’s no way in the world law enforcement could ever, ever solve that case unless a witness comes forward and tells us what they saw. Now, I’m not saying that that this witnesses are going to be able to say, Hey, I saw little Joey do the drive-by, but the, but each witness may have a little bit of information that’s going to help us in solving the case. Um, but it is impossible, absolutely impossible for law enforcement to get violent offenders off the street to identify violent offenders, unless we have help from our neighbors and our neighbors are, there are the community members. It’s not an us versus them. It’s all of us are in this together.
[00:29:22] CA: Talking about that, uh, that you might not be able to say it was definitely the little Joey that drove by, but as a witness, you might have some piece of information that would help us. Can you talk about, um, maybe a particular time that a witness did come forward with some information that was helpful to the case, but it didn’t involve that witness having to come to court and testify, it just helped to solve the case without testimony. Do either of you have any examples of those types of things?
[00:29:51] TF: I’ll go back to Zaevion Dobson’s case. Zaevion Dobson is a complete, completely innocent, high schooler, who was hanging out with his buddies on the back, uh, on the back porch of one of his friends, uh, him, him and his buddies they were just completely innocent and they were just being high schoolers hanging out in December 2015. But what he didn’t know, um, was that there was, uh, some gang shooting, um, at east Knoxville and in retaliation, uh, this person wanted to get revenge, not necessarily on Zaevion. This person doesn’t even know Zaevion but he just wanted to get revenge by shooting up a west Knox, um, west Knoxville house.
So, he goes to Lonsdale. Him and his buddies and they end up shooting up the porch that Zaevion was standing on. Zaevion gets struck by a bullet and, and dies. Well, none of the kids could identify anybody because it was dark. It was at night and they’re not expecting to be shot at so the kids, they couldn’t identify anybody.
Uh, we bring the defendants, uh, we’re able to get some leads. We’re able to get, uh, the defendants identified. Uh, one of the defendants gave a, a full confession, a full statement and identified other people that were there. And we can’t use that statement against the co-defendants unless we cut him a deal and we were not going to do that.
One of the witnesses had identified an outfit that one of these, uh, defendants was wearing, a person that we knew was a defendant, but we didn’t have enough evidence in order to charge him. Uh, but just happened to be talking with this lady in passing and she didn’t think she had any information. She wasn’t a witness, you know, she wasn’t a witness to the shooting, but the more we talked to her, she said, oh, well, yes.
You know, I know what such and such was wearing on the night of the shooting, you know. Oh, by the way, I’ve got a video of him dancing and it shows his outfit and she provided us with that video and it corroborated everything that this witness said. And because of that video, uh, we were able to charge this individual, uh, with, with the homicide of, um, Zaevion.
And, and as Ashley pointed out, you know, in these kinds of gang cases, we tend to have multiple defendants. And so, we’re able to charge three people with Mr. Dobson’s killing all, because this one witness who, although she wasn’t out on the porch, she didn’t see the shooting, but she had information that was, uh, very, um, very helpful to law enforcement and getting these individuals held accountable for, they kill him.
[00:32:24] CA: What goes unreported that you as a career criminal and gang prosecutor, uh, need to be reported to help solve crimes and help maintain that public safety that we’re talking about? How do people report these crimes or submit this information that the folks that you want to come forward? What is it you need from them? And what is it you want to encourage people to report?
[00:32:44] AM: So, I would go back to something, um, TaKisha said earlier about the shots fired. There have been 178 shots fired as of this week, this year. And 38 of those involved injuries to people. Um, and I would say that there were probably more unreported shots fired than the ones obviously that we know about from that statistics.
So, when those type of things happen where there are shots fired, I think sometimes people just assume, okay, that was really loud. I live in a small neighborhood. I’m sure somebody reported this. And, and, and maybe nobody calls because everybody thinks everybody else called, or maybe you’re in a rural area and there’s, there’s, you know, shots fired and it’s something out of the ordinary and then it just doesn’t get reported.
I would think that that’s something that would be important. Um, to get reported. And the way you do that is obviously, you know, if it’s shots fired, you see somebody injured, you call 911. But if it’s, if it’s something, uh, where you just happen to hear shots fired and you don’t want to call 911, then you can call a non-emergency number.
If you’re in the county, you can call the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. And if you’re in this city, you can call the non-emergency. Uh, KPD number.
[00:33:57] TF: I would also like to say that if you see a juvenile, uh, with a, flashing and a handgun on social media, throwing up hand signs, calling out opposite gang, please call and report that to the KPD non-emergency number or the Sheriff’s Office non-emergency number.
Uh, that is something I think that, uh, that goes in a report. I think that a lot of times people see this stuff on social media and they think, and well, it’s no big deal or it doesn’t involve me. Not a big deal. Um, but that, that is something that is super, super important to law enforcement. If I could, if I can go back to that previous question, you asked about telling people not to get involved, law enforcement, you do your job. Back in 2010, there was a, uh, a killing at the Unitarian church. That killing happened inside the church while all of the witnesses to that killing would be church members, people in the church. If you were to expand that, let’s say we have a shooting that takes place after school,
when kids are being led out of school. If that shooting takes place around all of those kids, all of the witnesses are going to be kids. I mean, so we’re going to rely upon, we’re going to depend upon those kids to come forward and tell us what they saw.
I mean, it’s, that’s, it just is. There’s no way in the world that we would ever be able to solve some type of case like that, unless we have whoever, uh, saw whatever to come forward and tell us. Uh, but again, we are, it is so important for everyone to understand that we’re all in this together.
[00:35:27] CA: Anything that either of you can think of that we haven’t covered, that our listeners would need to know about career criminal prosecution or a gang prosecution?
[00:35:37] TF: Uh, I do want to give one more example just in case somebody says, Hey, well, it’s not a big deal. You know, just because some kid is on social media, on Tik-Tok with a, a handgun is, you know, it’s not a big deal. Maybe he’s just pretending maybe he’s not a real gang member. He’s just got that gun for protection.
And so, I just do want to give one more example that we had a, uh, um, a young man, uh, Mr. Taylor, who was killed in January of this year here in Knox County, he was in the car with his buddies. And based upon what the witnesses tell us, um, this defendant had just, juvenile, had just bought this gun, uh, and, uh, he had taken the clip out of this gun.
And he was showing the gun around and he pulled the trigger, not realizing that there was still a bullet left in the gun and Mr. Taylor was killed. And, uh, again, if you know, that that is just information that, you know, had law enforcement, uh, been made aware of, of, uh, you know, this young man with a gun, maybe that’s something that we could have done to prevent Mr. Taylor from, uh, being killed. Um, I, I just think it’s, it’s important for anyone who sees a kid with a handgun to please let us know.
[00:36:50] AM: So, I had a case recently where there were people that were posting on social media. It was a bunch of juveniles and adults, young adults that were showing weapons and, and in a hotel room here in Knox County, and clearly based on what they were posting on social media, there were, they were up here with the purpose of committing a crime.
And so, had somebody seen that and reported that at that time, um, then what happened next could have been prevented, which was that these particular
individuals went to an ATM where there was an elderly man that was withdrawing some money from an ATM and they knocked him down, took his vehicle, injured him pretty severely, and then basically went on a crime spree from there.
They went from here in Knox County with that vehicle. And then as they’re doing that, they’re also posting them inside the victim’s vehicle with guns and alcohol and drugs that they’re putting on social media as they’re driving up to Nashville, where they committed a second carjacking with a second, with a second victim of crime, um, in Nashville.
And so, had somebody said anything to law enforcement earlier, maybe we could have prevented some crime as well. And that’s something that always we’re looking towards doing in this unit, too.
[00:38:07] CA: That has been a consistent theme throughout our entire podcast. No matter what the crime is, it sort of boils down to, if you see something, say something, no matter what the crime is. If you see something that could potentially be just not right, say something, whether it’s involving a gang member or a career criminal or a child abuse case, just, uh, always be mindful that law enforcement relies on the community to help protect itself. So, thank you both so much for being with us today.
I appreciate all of your insight and all of your conversation today. So, thank you.
[00:38:44] TF: Thank you.
[00:38:44] AM: Thank you.
[00:38:48] CA: Now that we’ve heard from our prosecutors, let’s consider how we as a community can prevent and respond to this type of crime. It’s time for our closing statements. Career criminal and gang prosecutors are examples of my office’s effort to be tough on crime. However, we also strive to be smart on prevention.
For instance, we encourage school attendance through a bike incentive program, which also raises awareness about the importance of attending school and results in dramatic improvements in test scores and school culture. We also are actively involved in community organizations that provide early intervention and prevention programming. As a community, we should invest in early intervention and prevention efforts no matter where we live. We know what
works, but we as a community must be all in and we must be in together. If you want to help reduce violent crime in your community, become a mentor, support afterschool programs and programs that help parents in need.
There are many ways that we can impact the next generation. Another way to help build a safe community is to report criminal activity. Hopefully we were able to successfully explain why we need the community’s assistance in preventing and stopping violence. And while we simply cannot do this alone, Please visit our website, knoxcounty.org/dag, to learn how you can prevent and report crime in your community.
Thank you for listening to Generally Speaking, a podcast presented by the Knox County District Attorney’s Office. You can find more episodes wherever you listen to podcasts or on our website, knoxcounty.org/dag. Join us next time for a different type of conversation as we sit down with one of our Assistant District Attorneys assigned to Juvenile Court, General Del Holley, if you want to learn more, we’ve included links to Sidebar Conversations in the show notes. Don’t miss out on more behind the scenes content.
For the last episode of the series, District Attorney General Charme Allen and Assistant District Attorney Del Holley delve into the world of Juvenile Court. The Juvenile Justice Unit has a different mission and speaks a different language. From punitive to rehabilitation and defendant to offender, listeners hear how the State seeks treatment and rehabilitation in cases involving youth.
For Sidebar Conversations, visit https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwHCmVM_VNTZZKdahEeLU1w
[00:00:00] CA: Welcome. I’m Knox County District Attorney General, Charme Allen. Thank you for joining us on Generally Speaking, where I will discuss important issues impacting public safety with expert frontline prosecutors who are seeking justice each and every day.
The District Attorney General’s Office can sometimes seem shrouded in secrecy. This is most often due to ethical rules that prohibit us from discussing pending cases. Our goal is to pull back that perceived curtain and tell you exactly who we are and what we do in the pursuit of justice, both in the courtroom and the community. Generally speaking, of course.
Welcome to the final episode of our podcast series. In our series, we have examined specific types of crimes through the lens of our special prosecution units here in the district attorney’s office. In this episode we will be focusing on the juvenile justice system, which you will see as quite different from the adult justice system.
As you will see, juvenile court has a completely different mission than the adult system. Juvenile justice focuses on treatment and rehabilitation and addressing delinquent and unruly behavior. Of the approximately 9,000 cases filed each year in Knox County Juvenile Court about 1,000 of them involve allegations of criminal behavior by juvenile offenders.
The Knox County District Attorney General’s Office is involved in the prosecution of those matters. The most frequently prosecuted juvenile offense classifications in misdemeanors in Knox County at this time are misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance, assault, and disorderly conduct. The most frequently prosecuted felonies in the juvenile justice system include felony theft, aggravated assault, and robbery.
With us today to talk about the District Attorney General’s role in the juvenile court system is Assistant District Attorney General Del Holley. General Holley joined the office from the private practice of law in 1994. In his 25 plus years in
the Knox County DA’s office, he has handled criminal cases from traffic violations to first degree murder charges.
Today, he finds himself in juvenile court where he is our team leader and resident expert in all things juvenile. Thank you for joining us on Generally Speaking, General Holley.
[00:02:28] DH: I’m glad to be with you today.
[00:02:29] CA: Well, let’s begin our direct examination. Generally speaking, what types of matters are addressed in the juvenile courts?
[00:02:37] DH: There are really three types of cases that are handled in the juvenile court system. First of all, juvenile court has jurisdiction to handle child support matters. That includes determinations of paternity, dealing with the amount of child support that a parent will owe, and, also, dealing with arrearages in child support payments.
There’s another part of the juvenile court that deals with family services cases. So those are matters that involved dependent neglected children, children who have suffered abuse, um, children who’ve been abandoned or otherwise neglected by their family. And then also custody matters. Change of custody, going into DCS custody.
And then there are the delinquent and unruly cases. Those are the cases that the DA’s office is involved in. Those are cases that involve conduct that most people would think of as being criminal in nature.
[00:03:32] CA: As you’ve explained those three types of cases, you’ve stated that really our office is only involved in that third set of cases. Can you talk to us and explain to our listeners specifically what types of cases are in that third group, what we actually handle?
[00:03:46] DH: So, we deal with what are called delinquent and unruly matters. And so, a delinquent offense is an offense committed by a juvenile that if an adult did the same thing, it would be a criminal offense. So, think about things like DUI and assault and possession of drugs. Unruly offenses are sometimes referred to as status offenses. Those are things that are only an offense if you’re under the age of 18. So those would be things like a curfew violation or a tobacco violation. Um, the focus of the DA’s team at juvenile court is really on felony level offenses, so more serious crime, violent crime, uh, crimes involving weapons, crimes involving significant level of injury to victims, and offenses
that occur, uh, on school property. A lot of the misdemeanor level offenses. So, misdemeanor assaults, uh, simple possession kind of offenses, traffic driving offenses. Those are generally handled at juvenile court through administrative and informal processes like mediation, traffic school, victim offender reconciliation programs.
And, typically, we don’t get involved in the misdemeanor level offenses because the disposition is handled outside the courtroom, the offenders aren’t brought before a judge to deal with their offense.
[00:05:08] CA: Let’s talk about some of the other differences between adult court and juvenile court. Specifically, can you talk about maybe some of the differences in the terminology used or additional rights that juvenile offenders may have?
[00:05:21] DH: Juvenile court has a completely different focus than the adult criminal justice system has. So, in juvenile court, when you look at the statutes that talk about the legislative policy behind juvenile justice, what you find is that the focus of juvenile court is treatment, training, and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
So, we spend a lot of time in handling our cases, talking about those kinds of things, rather than talking about punishment and incarceration. We do use different terms. So, for example, in juvenile court, we talk about a plea of true to the allegations of a petition, rather than talking about a guilty plea.
And, uh, after a case is adjudicated. We talk about entering a disposition on a case rather than sentencing the juvenile. We don’t talk about incarceration. We talk about detention. Um, the reason for the softer kind of language is that one of the public purposes, that specifically stated in the juvenile justice act, is to remove the taint of criminality and the consequences of criminal behavior. So, the focus really is on trying to help the juvenile offender and the offender’s family. To come to a point of being able to comply with the law rather than punishing them for non-compliance.
[00:06:44] CA: Rehabilitation versus punishment.
[00:06:45] DH: Right. Right.
[00:06:46] CA: What about, um, rights? What rights do juveniles have when being questioned? That an adult would not have as to, specifically, as to who is allowed to be with them?
[00:06:56] DH: From a constitutional perspective, juveniles charged with delinquent offenses have the same rights that an adult charged with a criminal offense has. So, they have a right against self-incrimination. They have a right to counsel. They have a right to confront and cross examine witnesses that are called against them. In court, the differences really are, are more about the process. So, typically, before a juvenile is questioned, for example, an investigator will contact whoever the custodian is for that juvenile, whether it’s a parent or some other family member that has guardianship or custody of the child, or sometimes the child is in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services.
And so, the investigator would contact that, that person to make sure that they didn’t have any objection to the child being questioned. They would be given an opportunity to be present when the questioning happens. And then when the child comes into court, the court tries to protect the rights and the interests of the child, by making sure that children don’t come into court completely by themselves when they appear in court, there’s a parent or guardian that’s there with them. There’s a real effort on the part of the court to make sure that children are fully advised of their rights, that they understand the rights they have and that any a waiver of that right truly is knowing and voluntary.
And whenever the rights are explained and there’s a parent or custodian there, the court always inquires of the parent or custodian, “Do you think your child understands what’s happening? Do you agree with the decision that they’re making either to waive a right or to enter a plea to this petition?” Um, so I would say that while the rights are the same, the processes in juvenile court are really directed at ensuring the protection of those rights for juvenile defenders.
[00:08:46] CA: As far as other differences, what about, uh, differences in trials and sentencing?
[00:08:52] DH: The most significant difference for the lawyers that are involved is that the processes in juvenile court move a lot faster than the processes in adult court. So, when a juvenile comes into detention, they have a right to a detention hearing within 24 hours of coming into custody.
If they are going to be held in detention, they have a right to demand what’s called a probable cause hearing, which is sort of the equivalent of a preliminary hearing and in adult court, but they have the right to that hearing within two days. And then if they are held in custody, pending disposition of their charge, they have a right to go to trial within 30 days of coming into detention.
So, in the juvenile system, we may begin and end a case from the adjudication perspective within 30 days of the child coming into custody. Where on the adult side, you could be talking about months or even years to get from arrest to conviction.
[00:09:52] CA: Certainly, a big difference. Some of our earlier podcasts, we’ve talked to prosecutors who prosecuted the adult system, and many of them have mentioned that it can take up to two, three years sometimes to get a case tried. So definitely a significant difference.
[00:10:06] DH: And that also becomes a frustration for victims because they have to live with that case dragging on through the system for those long periods of time. So, one of the, one of the benefits to juvenile court is we do have the ability to get through at least the adjudication stage of the juvenile prosecution fairly quickly, even for juveniles that are out of custody.
The statutory presumption is that the case will be adjudicated within 90 days of the child coming before the court. And then when a child is placed on probation with juvenile court, typically a probation sentence only lasts for about six months. There are some provisions that allow that time to be extended.
And certainly, if the child continues to incur charges while they’re on probation, that probation period will be extended, but it’s not unusual for us to have a child come in. And then six or seven months later to be exiting the juvenile court system. Another thing that’s different about juvenile court is that in juvenile court children don’t have a right to bond like adults have.
Uh, the process that we use in juvenile court is that when a child comes into custody in the detention facility, they have a detention hearing the next morning, and the court makes a determination about whether they should be held or whether they should be released. And if they’re released. Where are they going to go?
Who are they going to live with? Are there going to be rules and conditions placed on their, on their release? Are the, is there going to be supervision of their release? Um, but the court also has the authority to make a determination that it’s in the child’s best interest and the interest of public safety that the child should be held in detention pending a disposition of their case.
We don’t have jury trials in juvenile court. So, all of the proceedings that we conduct are conducted in front of a judge. Most of the juveniles that we deal with receive some type of probation, as opposed to a sentence that looks more
like incarceration. And so that goes to the treatment and rehabilitative aspect of juvenile court.
The first thing that happens when a child is placed on probation, is that they undergo what’s called a CANS assessment, which is a risk and needs assessment to determine what level of services are appropriate for that child as part of the plan of supervision. Um, that’s equally true when a child is committed to the Department of Children’s Services.
So. Um, on the juvenile side, what looks like incarceration on the adult side would be a commitment to DCS as a juvenile justice child. The very first thing that happens when the child comes into DCS custody is DCS starts working on a plan for what exit from DCS custody is going to look like. So, from the very first day, they start talking about who are the family members that are going to be involved?
What are the treatment or rehabilitative efforts? What are the measures of success? What’s expected of everybody who’s participating in that plan. And ultimately, what does exit from DCS custody look like? So, most of the commitments that we deal with are what are called indeterminate commitments, which means there’s no specific amount of time placed on the commitment.
It’s, it’s up to the child to work the program. And once the child has worked the program and the family is ready to receive the child back then the child exits DCS custody. Very few of the children we deal with and the offenses we deal with qualify for determining commitment, which is a commitment for a specific length of time, days, months, or even years.
[00:13:37] CA: One thing that I think we’ve jumped over, perhaps that we need to clarify for our listeners is when we say child here in Tennessee, we need to clarify for our listeners what age we’re talking about.
[00:13:49] DH: Right. So, the, the children we deal with in juvenile court are all under the age of 18. Once a child turns 18, then they become an adult in the eyes of the criminal law and their, their cases within be handled in adult court.
[00:14:02] CA: Let’s talk about what a typical docket looks like for you at juvenile court.
[00:14:07] DH: Well, we start our morning at juvenile court by reviewing arrest reports and making charging determinations about children. Who’ve come into
custody overnight that are in our detention. Uh, then we go into the courtroom. We, we have a regular docket every day where we handle plea agreements.
We review probation matters. We update the court on status of proceedings that is followed by a detention docket. So, any children that have come into custody overnight that haven’t been either released on bond or released to a parent because the offense is appropriate to do that. We have a hearing to determine why are they being held and is it appropriate to continue to hold them?
The rule, the statutory rule in juvenile court is that the court has to seek to hold the child in the least restrictive, least drastic, alternative to detention. So, for some children, detention is an appropriate place for them to be. But for other children, there are available safe and appropriate placements.
So, the court has to make a determination about that at the detention hearing, the child is advised of his or her rights, attorneys are appointed. And then the determination is made, if a child’s going to be held, when will we have the probable cause hearing for further detention. Uh, we generally have a trial docket in the afternoons.
So, we do uncontested and status kind of matters in the morning. If we’re, if we have a proceeding that we know we’re going to be putting on evidence, that’s going to take a little more time. We’ll do those in the afternoons. Once a week, we have what’s called an initial appearance docket, which is similar to an arraignment docket for an adult.
Those children come in. They’re told what they’re charged with. They’re advised of their rights. They’re asked if they are going to hire a lawyer, or if they want to apply to have a lawyer appointed. One time a month, we have permanency reviews. So, children who are placed in DCS custody as juvenile justice children have a right every 90 days to have their placement reviewed by the court to make sure that the people who need to be participating in the, in the treatment plan are participating. They’re cooperating. That the child is participating and making progress toward the treatment goals. That there’s a plan for exit that the, whatever the placement is, whether it’s a hardware secure facility or a treatment kind of facility, that the placement is safe and appropriate.
And then in the afternoons, uh, when we don’t have to be back in court, we find ourselves doing file review, responding to discovery requests, preparing cases that we know are set for trial, getting files ready for the next week in court. We get calls from investigators. We meet with investigators to talk about cases they’re investigating and make charging decisions.
We have conversations with probation staff about how the kids on probation are doing, or maybe if we have a juvenile that we know is about to plead to something, we’ll have a conversation with the probation counselor about what a plan of supervision needs to look like, what needs to be included in that. Defense attorneys call and come by to talk about the cases that they’re representing juveniles on.
And then of course we have regular meetings every week and every month with the court administrative staff and community partners to talk about policies in court and programs that are being made available and appropriate use of the resources that we have. So, it’s a, it’s a full day at juvenile court.
It’s not unusual for us. To, uh, have cases on the docket as early as eight o’clock in the morning and still be going strong in court at 4:30 in the afternoon. There’s a, there’s a lot of work to do.
[00:17:50] CA: I’m glad you mentioned community partners in that last answer. Uh, we’ve talked about that, really, the focus of juvenile court is treatment and rehabilitation. And community partners really play a large role in that. So, can you explain to our listeners what types of community partners we work with at juvenile court and what services they provide?
[00:18:11] DH: We do a lot of work with the Helen Ross McNabb Center. Um, McNabb provides counseling services. They do mental health and risk assessments for us.
They participate in some of our probation programs like the Home Base program, which is an intensive level of supervision for probationers. And they work with the Exit program to help children who are leaving DCS custody and transitioning back to either a family placement or a foster home of some kind.
Uh, the Child Help program is an important partner with us. They, they help us with forensic interviews of child victims of criminal offenses, and they also provide assistance for child victims of sexual abuse. We do a lot of work with Boys and Girls Clubs. In fact, the Richard Bean Center is recognized as a Boys and Girls Club facility.
So, even the detainees that we have, the kids that are in custody and detention, uh, have access to the same kind of programs that kids in the community would go to the Boys and Girls clubs to participate in. We work with the Knoxville Leadership Foundation, particularly through the KnoxWorx program.
That helps, uh, juveniles who are struggling to complete their educational requirements and not only work through the process of obtaining a GED, but also, um, receiving job training and helping to find a job in the community. Uh, we work with shelters like the Columbus Home and the Isaiah 117 House.
Those places provide a safe place for runaways. They also provide temporary shelter care for children who are in DCS custody that are waiting for placement in a more permanent foster home environment. Um, we have partners that provide residential, mental, and behavioral health and substance abuse treatment like Peninsula and Florence Crittenton. Um, there are a number of nonprofit agencies and churches in the community that provide opportunities for juveniles who have been ordered to complete community service hours. And then of course, the Knox County School systems, specifically the social workers in the school. Uh, help to provide counseling services to kids during the school year and, and work with our probation staff to monitor their compliance with plans of supervision that the probation staff are, um, have placed. Through the court process with juvenile offenders.
[00:20:33] CA: Is it fair to say that it would be very difficult to do your work adequately without all the community partnerships that we have in our community?
[00:20:41] DH: It’s fair to say. It would be impossible for us to do our jobs adequately without having those partners help us.
[00:20:47] CA: And we are very thankful for those community partners. They certainly make a huge impact in the, in the children’s lives here in Knox County. During this podcast, we’ve talked several times about the perceived curtain in the criminal justice system. We have discussed the ethical rules that are part of that curtain, the ethical rules that prohibit our office from talking publicly about any case that’s currently pending, but juvenile court, uh, that perceived curtain or those protective rules go even further. So, can you explain the laws that are in place to protect juveniles?
[00:21:20] DH: That’s right. So, we as attorneys, we are still subject to the ethical considerations that you’ve mentioned. But then in juvenile cases, there are specific statutory confidentiality requirements.
So, for example, dependent and neglect proceedings, those matters that deal with allegations of abuse and neglect and abandonment and child custody. Those proceedings are completely closed to anybody except the parties to the case and the, the treatment providers that are involved in the case, delinquent on
our unruly proceedings that we’re involved in are considered to be open proceedings in the sense that anybody who wanted to could come in the courtroom and observe what’s going on in the courtroom.
However, those proceedings can be closed by the court. If one of the parties request that the proceeding be closed. With respect to court files and law enforcement records, those matters are almost always confidential by statute. Um, that, that means that before we can release information, for example, to a victim, uh, we would have to have the permission of the court to release that information.
So, that becomes something that’s frustrating for victims in our cases is that they may ask for a copy of a police report. They may ask for a copy of a restitution order. They may ask for information about the child that’s been charged. And a lot of times when the information that we’re allowed to provide, if it’s a document, we have to redact identifying information from that.
Um, or it may be that we can’t release it at all. Unless we go into court and get an order, giving us permission to give the victim some piece of information that they’re asking for. That becomes even more complicated when the victim of an offense is also a juvenile because juvenile victims are afforded the same kind of privacy protection that the juvenile offenders are.
Um, so we, we navigate a lot of procedural hoops and hurdles in terms of protecting the confidentiality of the information that we receive in the cases that we prosecute.
[00:23:30] CA: Certainly, can be frustrating to a crime victim because especially if you’re the victim of a serious crime, you’re still suffering the same trauma and the same grief as a crime victim, whether that crime is committed by someone less than 18 or greater than 18. So, it is true that victims are quite frequently are very frustrated when the perpetrator of a very serious crime against a loved one is a juvenile. And, um, that, that makes it much harder for a victim’s family to ask for that access.
So, something we deal with daily. Let’s talk a little bit about your team down at juvenile court. And I say down at juvenile court because juvenile court is the only unit in our office that’s actually housed in a different building here in Knox County. So, we go down to juvenile court and uptown to, to, uh, our main office.
So, for our listeners that’s our distinction. So, um, at juvenile court, your team does include a truancy coordinator. So, can you talk to the listeners about what a truancy coordinator is? What truancy is and how we enforce those truancy laws here.
[00:24:32] DH: Tennessee has educational statutes that require mandatory attendance at school for children between the ages of five and 18.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a public school. It can be a private school. It can be a homeschool, it can be an online educational program, but the law does require that children between five and 18 participate in some kind of an educational program that leads toward a high school diploma. So, truancy is an allegation that a child has an excessive number of absences from participation in an, an approved educational program.
Truancy and the response to truancy is a process. It always starts at the schools. With the attendance officer and the social workers in the schools taking steps to try to address the problem with the child and the parent and resolve the problem in the school setting without having to bring it any further. Um, the Knox County School system utilizes it as part of its process what are called truancy review boards, and that’s where our office gets involved. So, our truancy coordinator is involved sometimes in meeting with the truancy review boards, as they meet with parents about why is it that their children aren’t coming to school. Um, and sometimes in a more advisory capacity to review the reports and the activity of the truancy review boards. Really the last step in the process is the filing of the petition in juvenile court, making an allegation that a child is truant by being excessively absent from school. And so, I remember when I was growing up, you always heard the stories about the truant officers that rode around town in a patrol car, looking for kids that were playing hooky and picking them up and taking them to school.
That’s not really what, what truancy intervention looks like in Knox County. Um, when a petition is filed, the child isn’t locked up. They don’t come into detention, but they are summonsed into court. Uh, the court addresses, whatever the underlying problems are that are causing the excessive absences. And then the court has through its partner agencies, resources available to help enforce compliance with the state’s mandatory attendance laws.
So that’s really what we try to do in truancy prosecutions is influence children and their parents in the direction of attending and participating in an approved educational program.
[00:27:03] CA: And reducing truancy is vitally important in keeping youth out of the juvenile justice system and then ultimately into the criminal justice system. Research and firsthand experience have told us that children who are truant have lower grades; they often need to repeat grades.
They have higher rates of expulsion and even lower rates of high school graduation. Uh, research also tells us that children who habitually miss school are at risk of substance abuse, gang activity, criminal behavior, suicide, and a long list of very negative things in a child’s life. I often sat in the criminal courts and listened to criminal court defendants, and the plea colloquy, the judge often asks what is the highest grade of education that you’ve attended.
And, you know, you’ve sat there and it’s just such a small percentage of criminal defendants have even completed high school. So, we see that play out all the way through criminal court. So, based upon that information, um, as you’re aware, our office started a bike program to try to, to combat truancy here in Knox County, instead of just letting you prosecute truancy on the backend at juvenile court, we tried to, um, take a preventative step and go into several of the local elementary schools and offer at the beginning of the year, any child who makes it through the entire year without missing a single day of school, the District Attorney’s Office on the last day of school will present those children with a bicycle. And we’ve been very fortunate that the Epilepsy Foundation has partnered with us to provide helmets free of charge to all those children who have received bicycles through that program.
Not only have we had great success in raising, um, the truancy numbers in those schools that we’ve targeted, we’ve found that, um, as a collateral, uh, positive that the grades have gone up for these children, test scores have gone up and, uh, disciplinary actions in those schools have also gone down. So, I feel like our, uh, bike program, it’s been a very positive thing that we have been able to initiate out of, um, our truancy program. So, it was just a way that we can be smart on prevention as well as be tough on crime, on the backend. And speaking of being tough on crime, let’s talk about some of the tougher crimes, um, that you have to prosecute down there at juvenile.
Let’s talk about gang activity here in Knox County, in the juvenile courts. Do you see gang involvement in the juvenile court cases? And does gang involvement impact how you prosecute a case at juvenile?
[00:29:40] DH: We do see cases where there’s evidence of gang membership, gang association, and gang activity. Gangs or gang activity is treated differently in the juvenile system than it is in the adult system.
So, since we don’t talk about sentences in the same sense that the adult system talks about sentences, we don’t use gang membership or gang activity as an enhancement factor to increase the level of punishment of a case. Where it does come into play in juvenile court is that gang activity and gang membership is a factor that the juvenile court judge can consider in a case where we filed a request to transfer the child from juvenile court to be tried as an adult.
[00:30:26] CA: And you’ve mentioned transfer. So, let’s talk about that. There are cases that, uh, we found appropriate to transfer a juvenile from juvenile court system up into the adult system. So, let’s talk about what the process is for deciding which juveniles to transfer to adult court.
[00:30:44] DH: The first analysis for us is to look at a child’s age and the nature of the offense with which they’re charged.
And so, by statute, the younger a child is the more limited, the types of offenses are that are statutorily eligible to be transferred. As a child gets closer to age 18, there’s more and more discretion on the part of the DA to make a decision about requesting transfer from the juvenile court. And it is important to remember that the DA’s role is to request transfer.
It’s up to the court to decide whether or not to actually transfer the case. And so, in making that decision about whether or not to transfer the case, the court considers things like how strong is the evidence in the State’s case? Um, what is the child’s mental health status? Are there mental health needs?
Are there capacity issues? Um, and then also the need to protect the community from this child’s conduct by placing the child under legal restraint or discipline. So, when a child is transferred to adult court, the disposition of that case ultimately is gonna be a lot more punitive than it will be rehabilitative.
The other kind of factors that the court can consider, um, in terms of making the transfer decision is what is, what exactly is the offense. And so, preference for transfer is given to violent offenses and offenses that involve the victim, uh, particularly offenses where there’s been some injury to the victim.
The court also considers what’s the history of the juvenile court supervision efforts with this child. So, a child who’s been through and on probation and maybe committed to DCS that has a fairly long history of treatment and rehabilitative efforts that have been unsuccessful and a history of noncompliance with probation plans or treatment plans that child is much more likely to be found by the court as appropriate for transfer than a child who is
maybe a first offender coming into the court. The bottom line in a transfer, the determination is, is there anything left for the juvenile court to offer this child in the way of treatment or rehabilitation or have we really exhausted all our efforts and punishment is the only thing that’s left.
The other thing to remember about a transfer child is once a child is transferred from juvenile court to adult court and then convicted in adult court on that transfer, then for the rest of their lives, they’ll be considered to be an adult for purposes of criminal prosecution. They’ll never come back to juvenile court to be prosecuted on anything after that.
[00:33:26] CA: Well, as we talked about in the opening, you have been in the office for a long time, over 25 years, and you’ve prosecuted in a lot of different courts, a lot of different adult courts, and then significant time down at juvenile. So, let me just ask you as a prosecutor, how is appearing in juvenile court different than appearing in adult courts for you?
[00:33:47] DH: I would say that appearing in juvenile court, prosecuting cases in juvenile court is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve had a chance to do as a prosecutor. And the reason I say that is because juvenile court is a place where at least a couple of times a week, I get to go home feeling like I really have made a difference in the life of a child or the family of that child, because we really are geared at juvenile court toward trying to help people have a better life. And that includes victims trying to help make victims whole and obtain restitution and obtain reconciliation where it’s appropriate. But it’s also true in terms of helping that juvenile offender and the offender’s family by surrounding them with services that are available through the, through the court to get help for the things that are underlying, whatever their conduct is. You know, a lot of times what we see that emerges as delinquent behavior or criminal conduct is really just a symptom of what’s going on in that child’s life, whether it’s problems at home, problems at school, problems with peers.
And so, it’s, it’s a good feeling. When those intervention efforts are successful, particularly when a child or a family comes back into court, three, four or five months later as the child is, is concluding their probation. And the family will say things like this has really been a helpful process for us, you’ve really made a difference in our lives. You see a kid that was headed down a path that was leading to nothing good. And through the efforts of the court and the probation staff, they’ve been able to turn their life around. They’re back in school, maybe they’ve got a job. Um, they’re getting help for mental health problems or substance abuse problems, relationship problems.
Um, so it’s a very, it’s a very rewarding experience and I’m, I’m thankful that I have an opportunity to do that.
[00:35:51] CA: Well General Holley, thank you for your dedication to the citizens Knox County, especially to the juveniles and making a significant difference in so many of their lives. And thank you for joining us today on Generally Speaking.
[00:36:04] DH: Thank you. I appreciate the chance to be here and talk about the juvenile justice system.
[00:36:10] CA: Now we’ll move on to our closing statements. Our goal with this podcast series has been to educate the community on the criminal justice system in Knox County to explain the types of lenses that are prosecutors must look through by law and give a glimpse behind the perceived prosecutorial curtain. The series episodes have focused on adult court and criminal offenses.
However, we felt it was very important to also make sure that the citizens of Knox County understand the world of juvenile justice. Throughout our podcast series, our closing statements have provided information on ways that the community can respond to the specific types of criminal activity we’ve addressed in each of the podcasts.
For prosecutors, the goal in juvenile justice is safety for the community and the rehabilitation of the juveniles. The community response should be prevention and early intervention. Prevention cannot be accomplished by one sector alone. Justice, public health education, health care government, social services, business, media, nonprofit agencies, and faith-based organizations all need to play a role in this important process.
Youth violence and crime affect a community’s economic health as well as individuals’ physical and mental health, and their wellbeing. Many youths, unfortunately experienced traumatic events, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and family and community violence. Repeated exposure to traumatic events increases the risk of youth violence. Our community partners who work with our youth daily by providing support and outreach have indicated the following needs and ways that our community can respond. A needed response is for the community to support our afterschool programs, whether that’s a STEM program, a trade program, or sports program, afterschool hours are fertile grounds for risky and violent behavior by our youth.
We know that juvenile violence crimes tend to peak between three and 6:00 PM on weekdays. This data indicates the importance of how youth spend their time during the week after school. Another need is for mentors, be a consistent, positive role model and mentor to youth. Youth participating in mentoring programs have fewer unexcused absences from schools. They’re less likely to engage in risky behavior and they just have a more positive attitude towards their education and their own future. Make a difference in a child’s life and check out our website for a list of mentorship programs in Knox County. Thank you for listening to Generally Speaking a podcast presented by the Knox County District Attorney’s Office.
You can find more podcasts where you listen to podcast or on our website, knoxcounty.org/dag. If you want to learn more, we’ve included links to Sidebar Conversations in the show notes. Don’t miss out on more behind the scenes content.
DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Listeners of this podcast should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter. The information in these podcasts is based on the state of the law as it stands at the time of recording.