OEDEL: Our crime problem

May 4, 2014 

On April 25, The Telegraph’s 2012 Middle Georgian of the Year, Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, debriefed local leaders about Robins Air Force Base in light of anticipated military downsizing nationally. McMahon mentioned traditional local vulnerabilities, such as chronic labor trouble at Robins. That’s improving, thanks to union members voting out problematic leadership March 18.

McMahon then pivoted to another disturbing factor from the perspective of national leaders deciding whether to enlarge, maintain or downsize Robins. McMahon’s group studied comparative community characteristics. By one critical metric, overall crime rate, Middle Georgia compares unfavorably.

Bibb County ranks among the most crime-ridden 1 percent of areas nationwide and isn’t improving. Bibb’s 10,280 incidents of homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, larceny and auto thefts in 2013 exceeded Bibb’s total of 9,958 in 2012, a 3 percent increase while Macon-Bibb’s population simultaneously decreased 1 percent, according to Census Bureau estimates (from 156,162 to 154,721). Those ratios approach Detroit’s, about the nation’s worst.

According to Bibb District Attorney David Cooke, a significant share of Bibb crime is gang-related. When Cooke’s office secured the conviction of Mafia-gang-affiliated Cedric Sherrod Newton Jr. on April 25 for the 2010 shooting of Crips-gang-affiliated Udondra Hargrove, Cooke said, “It’s the new philosophy of our administration that we’re not going to let the gangs run Macon.” It’s easier to pronounce a policy, though, than to undercut gang power.

Researchers focus on two wellsprings sustaining gangs. One is the absence of father-led families, practical education and decent jobs. Gangs provide alternative families, ways and roles, however dangerous and dysfunctional. Cooke can’t do much about those dynamics.

Another factor bolstering gangs is ideology. Gangs feed on any sense that legal authorities are instinctively, practically hostile to the subject population. At least gang discipline is home-grown and “fair” in the sense of being firm, street-wise knowledgeable and relatively predictable, in contrast to nagging perceptions that official authorities are remote, inconsistent, biased and even themselves, sometimes lawless.

The recent back-to-back prosecutions of Newton, who is black, and the loner Stephen McDaniel, who is white, did little to dispel suspicions among some of Macon’s African-Americans about official prosecutorial discretion.

Both of those inmates newly arriving at Jackson’s prison are in their mid-20s. Newton got life without parole for a killing despite consistently proclaiming, even interjecting at sentencing, that he didn’t kill anybody. True, Newton was marked with frightful gang tattoos that he got while serving prison time as a teenager for armed robbery. But tattoos aren’t criminal.

McDaniel got life, but with parole possible. Cooke had previously pulled the death penalty off the table, leaving prosecutors to bargain down from life without parole when McDaniel finally offered to admit to stalking, executing and dismembering his “friend,” neighbor and classmate, Lauren Giddings.

A trial for McDaniel might have had some hiccups, but even McDaniel’s seasoned defense counsel Frank Hogue pronounced it unwinnable.

Newton’s trial was comparatively problematic for prosecutors. The prime evidence was a sketchy, shadowy surveillance video not plainly identifying Newton, and the key eyewitness died less than two months before trial, after a languid prosecution approaching four years. Cross-examination of the eyewitness, who described the assailant’s tattoo and skin coloring as being different from Newton’s, might have left reasonable doubt. There also were suggestions outside the trial record that someone else did the crime.

I didn’t attend Newton’s trial. I don’t know who killed Hargrove. Still, the word I’m getting from the street, not just Newton’s family, is that nobody dares finger Hargrove’s real killer. Who would feel comfortable trusting police and prosecutors to protect them against relatively certain retribution?

I sampled street sentiment partly by canvassing individuals where Hargrove died, on Montpelier at Pansy, and at another hot-spot, Cedar at Moseley, where there have been two recent shootings since Alyssa Jackson died there last November.

Several apparently knowledgeable people outside Newton’s family and friends insist that Newton didn’t kill Hargrove. But a plea wasn’t needed for all to learn that McDaniel surely murdered Giddings. Such contrasts reinforce gang rhetoric. Reducing gang-related crime will require more nuance than driving for hard sentencing in questionable cases.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University law school.

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