Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke is on the warpath against Macon's violent street gangs, but some defense attorneys say the statute at the core of Cooke's new strategy can be used to curtail a defendant's right to a fair trial.
"The key to [Bibb County's anti-gang strategy] is charging under the gang statute, which not only enhances penalties for some crimes, but it also by statute allows the admission of evidence about the entire gang," Cooke told GPB last week.
But the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act of 2007 is far from uncontroversial, said defense attorney Sam Hart, Jr., who recently lost a case to Cooke's team.
Hart represented 25-year-old Bernard Bullard, whom a jury convicted of a gang killing in East Macon. The gang statute allowed prosecutors to introduce evidence that unfairly biased the jury against Bullard, he said.
"There were many pictures and comments from social media in the Bullard case that were admissible that weren't directly related to any prior problems Mr. Bullard may or may not have had with the victim," Hart said.
Prosecutors used photographs of Bullard from social media in an effort to prove his association with a gang, a requirement when charging a violation of the gang statute.
But that evidence likely swayed the jury in their decision to convict Bullard of the separate murder charges, Hart said.
"We think it mixes up the issue, so to speak, for the jury," he said, the result being that the jury ended up holding Bullard accountable for the acts of the entire gang.
The introduction of evidence about the gang as a whole unfairly puts the defendant's character on trial, Hart said, holding the accused guilty by association.
"You want to be careful when you're trying to rid certain evils in a broad way and have unintended results, or at least unfair results in our opinion," he said.