So I am preparing a Rule 11 Application to the Tennessee Supreme Court, as we criminal defense attorneys routinely do. I’m asking them to accept a case where a tremendous amount of gang testimony was admitted at trial, even though the murder was a domestic-related situation. Not surprisingly, it is the defense position that the gang stuff was extremely prejudicial and not really that relevant to whether the defendant committed this specific murder.
Anyway, case law about the admissibility of gang testimony is relatively new – at least in Tennessee. That’s not hard to imagine because it has only been in about the last twenty years that gangs have become better organized and more influential in all parts of the state. Which brings me to my treat for you today: the Juggalos.
In State v. Fritts, which the Court of Criminal Appeals cited as one of the leading cases about whether gang expert testimony is permissible, we learn about the Juggalos. Fritts was the defendant in the murder of his mother-in-law. Fritts lived with his girlfriend, girlfriend’s child, mother-in-law, and father-in-law.
Let’s be clear, Fritts was not winning any citizenship awards.
He worked sometimes at Arby’s and then, in line with the credo of the Insane Clown Posse, he wanted to live off of others. While I could have picked ICP out of a photo line-up, prior to reading this case, I didn’t know they encouraged such free-loading. One day, while his girlfriend and her father were gone from the house, Fritts’ mother-in-law struck more than 10 times with a hatchet. The hatchet was a weapon that was routinely kept in the in-law’s house. Apparently, ICP also encourages violence – specifically with hatchets. Fritts was accused of the murder, and really couldn’t account for his whereabouts until he arrived at the Knoxville West Town Mall later that day. Fritts also had the victim’s blood on his pants and shoe, which is not a great fact.
The police found a SpongeBob Square Pants (not kidding) notebook that had some musings about the ICP, and next thing he knew, Fritts was a full-blown gang member. I had two main thoughts when reading this case: 1) Doesn’t Fritts have to have, like, one other person, in his gang locally? Or is he just considered part of the larger Juggalo nation? 2) Secondly, this is ANDERSON COUNTY, TENNESSEE, NOT Detroit. (ICP originated from Detroit.) However, the trial judge found that the someone from the TBI could come in and testify about Fritts and the background of the ICP gang.
Here’s a snippet of the expert testimony:
ICP gang, an offshoot of the Insane Clown Posse band, based on specific criteria. He explained that the Insane Clown Posse band promotes violence through its music, which references decapitation, mutilation, and disembowelment and that followers of this band, called jugalos or jugolettes, are identified as members of the ICP gang when they commit crimes in the name of the gang. Detective Walker stated that the ICP gang had been designated as a street gang in Knox County and had been recognized as a gang in other parts Tennessee. He stated that the “Running Hatchet Man,” which is a symbol of the Insane Clown Posse band, is commonly used in identifying ICP gang members. He also stated that a common hangout for the ICP gang is the West Town Mall in Knoxville. Detective Walker testified that many ICP gang members write their own lyrics and that he found similar lyrics, which mentioned decapitation, mutilation, and dismemberment, in Fritts’s notebook. He also stated that white paint is part of the typical makeup for followers of the Insane Clown Posse band. He opined that Fritts was a member of the ICP gang based on the red hoodie sweatshirt bearing the picture of “the Wraith” that he was wearing the day of the victim’s death, the lyrics written in his notebook, his tattoos of the “Running Hatchet man” and “Jugalo for Life” that were displayed to the jury, and the substantial time he spent at the West Town Mall.
And another detective described rural America's worth nightmare with the following testimony:
Detective Walker testified that the Insane Clown Posse or ICP, was “a rap band or horror core band” and the ICP gang was an offshoot of the musical group. ICP gang members referred to themselves as “jugalos” or “jugalettes” and did not believe in abiding by society’s laws. They did not work, did not bathe, and rebelled against everything. He explained the belief system of an ICP gang member:
*11 Basically, they just want to listen to music, you know, play video games, write their own lyrics to their songs. They have to live the life of a good jugalo in order to pass the six trials and tribulations of the dark carnival, which are the six clowns that are featured on the six albums. Each album has its own meaning. You have to listen to it and figure out what your hidden meaning is for each album, in order that when you die your spirit is drug into the dark carnival and then you must pass the six trials and tribulations to make your way into Shangra–Lai or hell’s pit depending on your belief system on that.
Okay. Basically once you pass your six trials and tribulations, if the clowns believe you’ve lived the life of a good jugalo, then you will go to Shangra–Lai. They don’t believe that at any given time during the six trials and tribulations then you will go to hell’s pit. How you live the life of a good jugalo depends on the individual philosophy of the individual listening to it.
You can take the songs of ICP literally which say, you know, you’re supposed to kill people or you’re supposed to dismember or whatever or you just don’t follow society’s rules. You don’t want to get a job. You live off of whatever you can. You know, it’s just not following society’s rules and laws.
I mean, who WOULDN’T want to convict someone that subscribed to that thought process?! And isn’t that the purpose of Rule 403? Ultimately, is the evidence that makes you despise the defendant, really so relevant that we should take a risk admitting it?
The Court of Criminal Appeals determined that the trial court had no abused its discretion in allowing expert testimony from a “gang expert” because the murder was committed with a hatchet.
From the mouths of judges: " Specifically, Detective Walker’s testimony connected Fritts’s membership in the ICP gang to the victim’s murder because it explained the violent manner in which the victim was killed, the use of a hatchet as the murder weapon, and the presence of white paint on the victim’s hand and face. See Tenn. R. Evid. 401 (“ “Relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”). "
To read the full Fritts opinion, click HERE.
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