Sunday, August 24 2014 12:56 AM EDT2014-08-24 04:56:42 GMT
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KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Four Knoxville gang members are the first to face tougher sentences under a new law.
The Knox County District Attorney's office announced Monday four members of the Five Deuce Hoover Crips were convicted of attempted murder and aggravated assault after nearly beating a man to death last May.
Prosecutors say Devonte Bonds, 20, Thomas Bishop, 20, Jason Sullivan, 35, and Briana Robinson, 25, are members of a Knoxville criminal street gang, a growing problem in Knoxville.
The conviction is big step in terms of prosecuting these gang members almost doubling the sentencing as when the crime is related to gang activity.
But even more rare prosecutors say, is in this case it was the testimony of the victim, a fellow gang member, who put the four behind bars.
"For him to wake up out of his coma after months and to come forward and to cooperate with police, to identify them that had done this to him that was extremely significant," explained Takisha Fitzgerald, Knox County Assistant District Attorney who prosecuted the individuals along with Assistant District Attorney Phil Morton.
Last May, a 20-year-old man was beaten by four individuals, an attack that left him in a coma for months.
"He was beaten savagely, he was in a coma, he was blinded, he had to learn how to walk again," she said describing his injuries.
Fitzgerald says the victim was a member of the Five Deuce Hoover Crips but was trying to turn his life around.
"We believe the gang was realizing what he was starting to do, he was going to end his gang life, his gang membership and as punishment he suffered a savage beating," she said.
The victim identified his attackers and testified at the trial despite death threats.
"[His attackers] were in prison but all the while they are calling their fellow gang members and friends to put pressure on the victim not to come to court," Fitzgerald said. "There was a hit placed out on him because he was standing up and doing the right thing by testifying against fellow gang members."
The DA's office says gangs were established in Knoxville during the mid 1990s.
"It's here and it's a problem," said Stephanie Mitchum.
Mitchum is the director of Water Angel Ministries who is trying to help stop the growing gang problem in Knoxville.
"We call it the 180 Gang because 180 degrees is a U-turn, so it's a sign of repentance," she explained.
The faith based outreach program targets at-risk youth helping them get out of gang life but more importantly preventing them from joining in the first place.
"Once you get jumped in they have a hold on you," Mitchum said.
The hope is by targeting youth as young as 10, they can prevent more victims. The DA's office hopes this conviction will also help.
"I'm not saying this conviction will eradicate all the gang problems in Knox County," Fitzgerald admits. "What I am saying is one individual can stand up to a gang, even though the individual has made the wrong decision earlier to join a gang, he can stand up to them."
The sentencing for he individuals is July 12. Because of their criminal histories Bishop and Sullivan face sentences ranging 30 to 45 years. Robinson faces sentences ranging from 11-22 years and Bonds faces sentences ranging from 18-35 years in prison.