UPDATE: D.A. says he will not appear before City Council; hopes to meet with mayor
By WRCB Staff
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke (left) and District Attorney Neal Pinkston.
CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -
UPDATE: After catching an error in a previous release, the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office sent an update to correct the timeline of Wednesday's meetings.
Spokeswoman Melydia Clewell sent the following statement to Channel 3:
"The fundamental misunderstanding of TN sentencing law was discussed in another Wednesday meeting. General Pinkston spent Wednesday in his office writing a brief due to Judge Don Poole in the case of State v. William F Hawk. Assistant prosecutors attended several meetings that day and reported back to him throughout the day, which is typical. Executive Assistant DA Lance Pope read General Pinkston's media statement this afternoon and noticed the error."
PREVIOUS STORY: Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston has announced his plan to not appear before Chattanooga City Council, despite a unanimous vote and subpoena asking him to come explain his recent criticism of the city's Violence Reduction Initiative.
Under state statute, a DA has immunity from subpoenas to a trial. The statute is not clear on a subpoena by City Council.
“My staff and I have received a steady influx of community feedback since Tuesday night’s council meeting, with the overwhelming majority encouraging me not to respond to the council’s demand,” Pinkston wrote in a statement Friday.
Pinkston said attorney Gerald Webb will appear on his behalf. Webb, a defense attorney, represents gang members in Hamilton County courts on a daily basis.
Pinkston was served Thursday following a unanimous vote by the council to issue a subpoena under city charter. Pinkston declined an invitation to appear at Tuesday's meeting with city leaders about VRI, sending a letter instead announcing plans to form an alternative gang taskforce.
“We need to know as a council that VRI is effective. If we have someone expressing concerns about it as an elected official, I think they have a moral obligation to come and address those concerns,” said Henderson.
Pinkston says his letter to council members on Tuesday addressed the issues he believes are most responsible for hindering the success of the VRI.
“It left me with more questions than answers,” Henderson responded.
“For months, fingers have been pointed at me,” Pinkston said in Friday’s statement. “They were pointed in the wrong direction. City leaders need to put the focus on their own obligations in fulfilling the initiative Chattanooga taxpayers are funding.”
Pinkston argues the founders of the VRI now realize the program may be unrealistic in Chattanooga due to state sentencing laws his office must follow.
“During a VRI work session Wednesday afternoon, representatives of John Jay College acknowledged their own misunderstanding of Tennessee Sentencing Law, which resulted in unrealistic, even impossible, expectations from my office,” wrote Pinkston.
“They also agreed my office needs to be involved on the front end,” he added.
David Kennedy created VRI and runs the National Network for Safe Communities project at John Jay College in New York. Kennedy tells Channel 3 members of his team were in Chattanooga on Wednesday for a routine meeting which “had nothing to do with the public controversy.”
“There seems to have been some confusion. As far as I know, these legal issues didn’t arise (at the meeting),” Kennedy said.
“The DA is absolutely correct that any prosecutorial action taken under VRI has to be both legal and ethical. We’ve always been convinced that that’s both essential and possible in Chattanooga,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy added, “The strength of the VRI approach is that it is very effective. It’s the single most effective approach to homicides. It requires a really robust partnership. It’s very, very important for the key players to be of one mind and working together or it will never work.”
Chattanooga Police Department spokesman Kyle Miller said CPD's Focused Deterrence Coordinator facilitated the meeting and sentencing was not discussed.
“It brings together members of the DA's office, Intel, SCRT, patrol and major crimes to discuss violent incidents (shootings/homicides/shots fired/property damage) in an effort to make sure we are all on the same page with names and status of the incidents. To date, we have held three of these meetings. This meeting is not held for the purpose of discussing sentencing. Nor was sentencing discussed during this meeting,” added Miller.
"It would be impossible to avoid discussion of sentencing at such a meeting," said DA public information officer Melydia Clewell, who added the purpose of having prosecutors attend Wednesday's meeting was to discuss criminal charges, prosecutions, and potential sentencing issues.
"All five of our Violent Crimes prosecutors attended," said Clewell. "All of them report a point in which folks from NY realized they fundamental misconceptions of TN sentencing law," she added.
Three days after announcing plans to create a new gang task force, Pinkston says he is committed to to city’s VRI.
“Next week Mayor Andy Berke and I will be meeting to discuss next steps and ways to make sure the Violence Reduction Initiative is as effective as it can possibly be,” Pinkston wrote.
Berke's office said no such meeting is on the books.
“Nothing is scheduled at this time but I can assure you we look forward to scheduling it,” said Mayor Andy Berke’s Senior Advisor Lacie Stone.
“We have been hoping for a private discussion with General Pinkston for some time and right now we are only concerned about having a productive conversation on this important topic -- not about issuing press releases or media statements,” added Stone.
Clewell says Pinkston and Berke will work on coordinating their calendars after the holiday weekend.
Chief Fred Fletcher has not been invited to the meeting. Miller says Fletcher is focused “on keeping our city safe and believes continued public discourse on this matter will directly harm public safety and its effectiveness."