Tennessee Supreme Court Reinstates 1st-Degree Murder Conviction In Chattanooga Case

Monday, November 29, 2021

In a Chattanooga case, the Tennessee Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the conviction of a defendant for premeditated first-degree murder.  The court determined that there was sufficient proof of premeditation to support the jury’s verdict and also concluded that the introduction of evidence about gang membership did not warrant a new trial.

On the night of May 5, 2013, 19-year-old Wendell Washington was shot and killed on his front porch on Northrop Drive in Lupton City.  Circumstantial evidence linked Jeremy Reynolds to the shooting, including evidence that the victim fired two shots at his assailants and Reynolds was left at nearby Erlanger Hospital with two gunshot wounds minutes after the shooting.  Reynolds did not have a gun on him when left at the hospital, but a .45-caliber handgun linked to the crime was recovered by police three months later from the car of another man.  Evidence showed that this man was not at the scene on the night of the shooting. 

The trial was held in 2016.

However, the proof at trial revealed that Reynolds and two other men were all members of the Gangster Disciples, the high court said.  One of those two men left Reynolds at the hospital, and the other was the man from whose car the .45-caliber handgun was recovered.  The trial court admitted evidence that all three men were Gangster Disciples based on its finding that an association among the men could link Reynolds to the handgun used at the crime scene even though it was not recovered from him at the hospital.  A jury convicted Reynolds of premeditated first-degree murder.

On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish premeditation and, therefore, reversed Reynolds’s conviction for first-degree murder.  Additionally, although the evidence would have supported a conviction for second-degree murder, the Court of Criminal Appeals remanded for a new trial because it concluded that the trial court erroneously admitted unfairly prejudicial background information about the Gangster Disciples.  The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the State’s request for permission to appeal.

In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals.  The Court determined that there was sufficient evidence presented at trial for a reasonable jury to find that the victim’s killing was premeditated.  In addition, the court concluded that, although the trial court erred in admitting a limited portion of the gang-related evidence, this portion did not likely affect the jury’s verdict.  Accordingly, the court reinstated Reynolds’s conviction for premeditated first-degree murder.

Prosecutor Kevin Brown had told the jury, “Jeremy Reynolds was prepared. He was prepared to confront Wendell Washington. As a result of that confrontation Wendell Washington lay dead - on his own front porch, shot seven times.”

Prosecutor Brown said that Deante Duncan, “a fellow gang member,” went with Reynolds to Washington's house. He said that the two men who are seen in a video carrying Reynolds into Erlanger Hospital on the same night of the shooting “weren't hanging around to answer questions” because “they had just been at 3687 Northrop St. and killed Wendell Washington.”

Prosecutor Brown said that one of Washington's neighbors had seen a white Mitsubishi SUV leave the street after hearing gunshots. Prosecutor Brown said this is the same white SUV that can be seen in the Erlanger Hospital video, which he said arrived seven minutes after the shooting.

He also said that the Hi-Point 45 caliber gun taken off of Gerald Jackson months later was a match for bullets found at the crime scene. He said that Jackson, who was ruled out as a suspect, had the gun “because he was Jeremy Reynolds's fellow gang member.”

Prosecutor Brown said that findings from the autopsy of Washington were consistent with Washington being bent over and turning away from the gunfire. 

“He was trying to get away from Jeremy Reynolds,” Prosecutor Brown said. “He was trying to get away from the man that was killing him - that shot him on that front porch seven times.”

Defense attorney John McDougal said that the prosecution was relying on emotion.

“They want to scare you into convicting (Reynolds) because they don't have any evidence that he did it,” he said. “The evidence doesn't help them. It doesn't complete their story, it tears it apart.”

Attorney McDougal said that “Wendell Washington was a drug dealer” and that “drug dealing's a very, very dangerous occupation.” He said that anybody could have shot Washington.

He recounted the testimony of Teri Arney, a special agent forensic scientist at TBI's Crime Lab. Attorney McDougal said that the 40 caliber bullet removed from Reynolds during surgery could have come from other types of guns than the 40 caliber Glock found in Washington's home.

Attorney McDougal also said that there was a distance problem, since one of the holes in Reynolds' shirt tested positive for a contact shot and Washington was shot from far away. He also said that the vehicle seen in the hospital video was gray, not white. He said that the vehicle could not have traveled from the crime scene to Erlanger as quickly as the prosecution says that it did.

“The state admits they have no direct proof,” said Attorney McDougal. “If the state has doubt, ladies and gentlemen, how can you not have doubt?”

“Just because the facts don't make sense to the defense doesn't mean they're not true,” said Prosecutor Lance Pope. “Mr. McDougal misrepresents what the evidence is and then tries to tell you it's reasonable doubt.”

He said that not all of the gunshot wounds to Washington were from far away, but that Agent Arney had found contact firearm discharge on Washington's jacket. 

“There's some proof in the case that Wendell Washington was involved in the sale of narcotics,” said Prosecutor Pope.

He said that if Washington was doing something illegal, he deserved to be arrested, but “what he didn't deserve was to be murdered on his front porch.”

“You get to decide you won't stand for it,” Prosecutor Pope told the jury. “You won't stand for (Reynolds's) guns. You won't stand for his violence, for his shootings, for his gangs. You won't stand for it.”

Reynolds had previously served time for facilitation to commit second-degree murder in the 2005 death of Harold Steven Freeman.

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in State v. Jeremy Reynolds, authored by Justice Jeff Bivins, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.

 


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