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VOL. 129 | NO. 178 | Friday, September 12, 2014

Legal Issues Await Mob Attack Investigation

By Bill Dries

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Memphis police could make more arrests in the Poplar Plaza mob attack, but investigators believe they have the teenagers who started the riot on the parking lot of the Kroger supermarket Saturday, Sept. 6, that injured three people.

“We’re still looking. We’re still investigating. We have some parents that have come forward and told us that their children were at the Kroger lot. Those are being investigated. We’ll continue to go out and question people,” deputy police chief Jim Harvey said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “I think we got the main instigators. But we are still looking to see who else may have been involved and taken an active role in that fight.”

The next step is a decision by Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich on how to handle the cases in court. And Weirich, also on the program, said the decision on whether to try those arrested as adults or juveniles is on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re bound by the law. … They either have to be a certain age or they have to have committed a certain list of crimes. We’ll take a look at that,” she said. “The mission of our office, the responsibility of our office is to not only seek justice for those victims on the parking lot but for the entire community. Every case is different. Every one of these juvenile offenders, what they did, their history, their record, their lack of record – all of that takes a part in the decision we make.”

WHARTON

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has talked with the parents of some of those involved and has said he may make a case for those parents who have taken some responsibility before police found their children as a result of the investigation. But Wharton emphasized that the decision on what to pursue in court is with Weirich’s office.

“There is absolutely no excuse, no understanding of knocking a human being down and kicking him or her in the head,” he added. “No matter what is going on in your household, there’s no way in the world that we can in any way insinuate or imply that … kids will be kids. That is absolutely not the case, and that’s going to be the position that the city of Memphis through its police department will take.”

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen starting Monday afternoon on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

In the week since the attack, the reaction has taken in broader issues including public safety concerns.

It comes at a critical time in the local criminal justice system when the different parts of that system have begun to rethink a reliance on arrests and long sentences as the dominant answer to spikes in crime.

The mob attack is arguably the biggest challenge to that philosophy in terms of the public reaction.

And last week, some political leaders began to question the philosophy.

Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland wrote Weirich Thursday saying he is willing to work with Tennessee legislators to redefine a “hate crime” to include incidents like the mob attack.

Roland said he was “saddened” by Weirich’s statement last week that the mob attack didn’t fit the legal definition of a hate crime.

“The white and black Kroger employees were beaten when they attempted to help the white customer,” he wrote. “Beating them was an intimidation tactic that sent a message to other bystanders to stay out of the mayhem.”

But Weirich said again that the circumstances as defined in the police investigation are not a hate crime, which she said is better described as “civil rights intimidation.”

“You have to have an individual who is targeted because of their race, their ethnicity, their national origin, their religion and a constitutional right that they have was denied,” she said.

Wharton said the hate crime debate is a distraction.

“Focus on the charges that are on the book if you want to lock somebody up,” Wharton countered.

The aggravated riot charge carries a prison sentence of one to six years and aggravated assaults three to 15 years.

“I think it moves us away from the core of what happened here,” Wharton added. “We need to search and see if there’s a way for us … to detect antisocial conduct early … and deal with it before it gets to the level of a parking lot. Those are the more stubborn issues that we ought to be focusing on. We take one case, one law … from my part, it allows us to get off the hook to deal with these broader issues.”

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