ALBANY, Ga. The Georgia Supreme Court has unanimously overturned an Albany man’s conviction on street gang terrorism and aggravated assault charges.
Tchywaskie Lamar Jones is currently serving a sentence for both charges at Hays State Prison.
According to a court spokesperson, the justices found that the evidence was “legally sufficient to sustain the aggravated assault conviction,” but it must be reversed because the judge failed to direct jurors to ignore the prosecutor’s unsupported statement in closing arguments that Jones had been involved in previous gang-related violence.
“Here, the evidence against Jones was not overwhelming, and it was highly prejudicial for the prosecuting attorney to argue that Jones had been involved in a prior gang shooting,” Justice Keith Blackwell writes in Monday’s opinion. “For these reasons, we cannot conclude that the generalized standard instruction given by the trial court was sufficient to cure the prejudice worked by the improper argument of the prosecuting attorney or that the failure of the trial court to do something more was harmless.”
Jones and Dabkowski Luke were each sentenced in December to serve 10 years in prison for their respective roles in shooting at the Carver Pool in 2009. Jerry Lee Harris Jr. was also convicted of shooting Donald Winchester. He was sentenced to serve 15 years in prison.
“Although there was some evidence presented at trial about the existence and activities of the Southside Bloods, the State inexplicably failed to adduce any evidence that Jones was associated with the Southside Bloods or that his commission of an aggravated assault was intended in any way to further the interests of the Southside Bloods,” the 19-page opinion says. “No witness testified that Jones was a member of the Southside Bloods. No witness testified that those accompanying Jones at the time of the shooting were members of the Southside Bloods. No witness testified that Jones was associated in any way with the Southside Bloods.” The state never identified who made the statement about “slob asses” or showed whether Jones had even arrived at the scene when it was made. “Because the evidence, even when viewed in the light most favorable to the State, is insufficient to show that Jones participated in criminal street gang activity while associated with a criminal street gang, his conviction under the Street Gang Act must be reversed,” the opinion says.
Dougherty District Attorney Greg Edwards said that his office will retry Jones on the aggravated assault charge noting that there is a learning curve on the street gang terrorism statute, saying that it’s often hard to delineate between a person merely being a member of a street gang and whether, as the law requires, proving that a crime was done “in furtherance of the gang.”
“Unless a gang member stands up and yells ‘I’m a member of the Crips and I’m killing you because your a Blood, we have to rely on largely circumstantial evidence to build these gang cases on and then have to depend on a statute that is unsettled,” Edwards said.
The retrial will likely be bumped to the top of the court’s calendar, Edwards said.
“The reason we are going to retry him is because there is sufficient evidence to convict him on the underlying offense and this is the kind of offense we can’t relent to,” Edwards said. “One of the people who were shot was an innocent bystander and we can’t allow street gang violence to go unaddressed. This office will continue to bring gang cases.”