ROANOKE — As defense attorney Aaron Cook stood in front of a federal judge, he turned and swept a hand toward the four deputy U.S. Marshals seated either directly behind or next to the row of defendants.
“This array of police officers makes these folks look dangerous,” Cook said last week. “We think it’s prejudicial, the way these officers are stationed.”
He was trying to set the scene for the seven-week trial to begin Monday against eight accused members of the Rollin’ 60s Crips street gang, charged in a racketeering, drug trafficking and murder case that prosecutors contend lays out the story of the deadly gang war that swept through Danville in recent years.
The trial, to include a jury pool of residents from the Dan River Region and adjoining communities, will take place in the U.S. District Court in Roanoke. The federal court in Danville is considered too small to accommodate the unusually large number of defendants, attorneys, witnesses, jurors and deputy marshals guarding the courtroom.
Cook also argued for the defendants to be allowed to wear suits instead of prison jumpsuits. U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski agreed.
A defendant’s appearance, in addition to the evidence presented at trial, likely affects a juror’s ruling on a case, former Lynchburg commonwealth’s attorney Michael Doucette explained to the Danville Register & Bee.
“Imagine the subliminal message that is sent out by an unkempt defendant appearing in a courtroom in an orange jumpsuit vs. that sent by a well-coiffed defendant sitting in that same courtroom in a fashionable suit,” he wrote in an email.
As for a heavy showing of courtroom security, it’s something the U.S. Supreme Court addressed in 1986: “To be sure, it is possible that the sight of a security force within the courtroom might under certain circumstances create the impression in the minds of the jury that the defendant is dangerous or untrustworthy.”
In the pretrial hearing last week, although the prosecution was allowed to voice their opinion on the issue, they decided against it.
Urbanski, after a moment of silent deliberation, agreed with Cook, and discussed potential accommodations that would keep the defendants shackled while also hiding it from the jury.
“I’m thinking of providing a skirt to both counsel tables and requiring the defense to sit with shackles,” Urbanski said. “I’ll also allow the marshals to sit farther away, and to dress like lawyers.”
Defendants Marcus Davis, Deshaun Lamar Trent, Shabba Larun Chandler and five others, are suspected members of the street gang the Rollin’ 60s Crips. They are charged in relation to the Aug. 20, 2016, homicide of Christopher Motley, and the attempted killing of Justion Wilson at the Southwyck Apartment complex.
According to court documents, Motley was killed during an ambush. It is suspected multiple gang members hid inside the apartment of an accused gang affiliate, waiting for the leader of a rival gang leader to show up. It was as a white van rolled into the parking lot that a flurry of gunfire was unleashed and Motley — not the intended target — was killed.
Prosecutors contend the shooting was the result of an alliance between the Rollin’ 60s Crips and the Millas Bloods, which has a concurrent trial set to begin in January. The location of that trial is still under consideration and could be held in Danville.
Five other defendants in the Rollin’ 60s Crips case already have pleaded guilty to the charges across two cases and await sentencing. One of those defendants — Matthew Ceasar Feguson — is partially recanting his guilty plea and is scheduled for a change-of-plea hearing Oct. 11. He now says while he was at the meeting where the ambush was planned, he was not at the scene when the shooting happened.
Avent is a reporter with the Danville Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 797-7983.