Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee

The Trial of Byron Looper

Five hundred people were summoned for jury duty and two hundred showed up at the Sullivan County Courthouse to be selected for jury duty in mid-August, twenty-two months after Tommy Burks was gunned down on his hog farm. About 100 miles or so from Crossville, Sullivan County was chosen for the jury pool because it was hoped that the distance from the scene of the crime would mitigate any sensational news coverage.

When jury selection was completed on Saturday afternoon, Daniel dismissed the jury, admonishing them not to talk with anyone about the specifics of the case, and ordering them to report for transportation to Crossville the next afternoon.

"Pack enough clothes for two weeks," he told them.

The thousands of cars that wound through Crossville on the first day of Byron Looper's murder trial weren't there for justice, they were there for the annual Highway 127 Yard Sale.

The yard sale is an annual event in these parts, part sale, part festival, where bargain hunters can travel 450 miles of U.S. 127 from Kentucky to Alabama in search of undervalued treasures or just plain junk.

Everything was on sale on U.S. 127, from a picture of O.J. in a Buffalo Bills uniform to stuffed beavers. Time magazine reported that one woman in Alabama sold a rock on her lawn for $3. Vacationers plan their trips around the sale, which started in 1987, bringing U-Haul trailers and empty suitcases to haul their loot.

The annual sale created a logistical nightmare for participants in the trial. The jurors were sequestered in a local hotel, but media representatives and other interested parties were forced to fend for themselves among the sold-out motels. Gibson and his prosecution team rented a small cabin in a nearby national park.

Before a packed courtroom which held members of the Burks and Looper families, as well as District Attorney Bill Gibson's mother, the prosecutor stood before the 16-member panel and opened the state's case against Byron Looper.

The state would show, Gibson said, that Byron Looper wanted power and that he would do anything - including murder - to achieve it.

"Byron Looper is a man obsessed with a burning desire for power," Gibson began. "He knew he didn't have a chance in the fair election to defeat Tommy Burks, and that caused him to formulate a plan to resolve this election with a bullet instead of a ballot."

Gibson offered the jurors a road map of the state's case against Looper. He told them they would hear from a Hardee's restaurant employee who could testify that Looper was the angry customer in her restaurant a half-hour before the shooting. Wesley Rex would testify how he saw Looper at the scene of the crime when Tommy was shot, Joe Bond would tell them how Looper had confessed, and other witnesses would testify to Looper's predilection for violence as an electoral strategy.

Looper listened intently to Gibson, showing little emotion, despite the seemingly insurmountable evidence against him. He had faith in Cordova and Poston, and had witnesses on his side, as well.

Ken Poston opened for the defense, painting Looper as the victim of conspiratorial political enemies. Looper was a zealot, he admitted. He did like to attack the system and he held a take-no-prisoners approach. But Looper was no murderer, he said.

"He was the first Republican elected in Putnam County, at least in recent memory, and he made quite a name for himself, but not a good name," said Poston. "He had a bombastic campaign style, a way of offending anyone that was status quo, and he did it repeatedly."

Poston then hinted the ace up his sleeve, making reference to the possibility of witnesses who could show Byron was not present on the Burks farm that fatal day.

"Byron did not do it," he said. "Byron could not have done it. Byron indeed had no reason to do it. He had nothing to gain from it, as the law read in 1998."

It was typical in the South to give a seat vacated by death to the widow, Poston said. Charlotte Burks undoubtedly would have inherited Tommy's seat in the Senate.

Opening statements took most of the morning, and after a short break, Gibson began laying out the state's case in more detail. Wheeling in a television set and VCR, Gibson warned the court that what he was about to show might be disturbing to some, and he was not showing the tape for shock value. In a silent courtroom, he pushed the play button on the VCR and took the jury back to October 19, 1998.

The police evidence tape was shot at the crime scene prior to the removal of Tommy's body. In sometimes erratic, amateurish quality, the tape showed Burks slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup truck, the interior of which was covered with blood. The tape had no sound, which added to its eerie quality. Burks' corpse could plainly be seen, his foot still on the brake, his face mottled with blood and gunshot residue.

Cumberland County detective Gary Roach, one the many investigators on the scene that day, provided narration from the stand, but in the silence between his statements, quiet weeping could be heard from the section of the courtroom where the Burks family sat. Tommy's 80-year-old mother, Christine, had to be led from the room, and Charlotte Burks covered her face in her hands. Looper watched intently, and once or twice could be seen stealing glances at the Burks family.

Roach was questioned at length by both sides about the police techniques employed to handle evidence at the scene. His testimony was dry and technical, explaining for the jury the process investigators went through to ensure that the crime scene was untainted by outside influences. He described in detail how police found tire tracks in the area, made castings of those tracks using wooden forms and dental plaster, and then eliminated all but one set of tracks from suspicion. Those tracks, he said came from Looper's Audi.

There wasn't much physical evidence at the scene, Roach admitted. Tommy had never left his truck, and the only footprints in the area matched Wesley Rex's boots; those tracks were made after the Viper tires had left their imprint: in some cases, Wes' boot prints were left on top of the dusty tire tracks.

The shooter had not left his vehicle, it appeared to police. No evidence was found of a spent shell casing and authorities found no fingerprints anywhere on Tommy's truck except his own, Roach said.

Wesley Rex next took the stand for the prosecution. In halting, well-thought-out answers, Wes testified that he was "100 percent certain" that the man he saw driving away from Tommy's truck was Byron Looper.

He recounted the events of the morning, from seeing Looper lurking around the farm before Wes and Tommy talked about repairing the wagon to the black car racing away from the scene of the crime.

How good of a look did you get at the driver? Poston asked on cross-examination. Wes replied that he saw Looper's face for about three to five seconds.

Charlotte Burks took the stand next for the prosecution and in emotional testimony, she related how Wesley had come to her in a state of panic after discovering Tommy's body.

Charlotte Burks testifies
Charlotte Burks testifies
 

"I got out and touched Tommy, and I was holding him and I felt a big knot on the back of his head," she said in a strong, steady voice. "I looked at his face and I could see the hole."

The state offered up 34 witnesses during its phase of the trial, everyone from the Hardee's manager to employees of Looper's office, in an effort to link Looper to the crime. The prosecution struggled to tie the murder weapon to Looper.

But no witness was more damaging to Looper's fate than Joe Bond. He spent two-and-a-half hours on the stand, but no matter how hard Poston and Cordova tried, they could not crack a hole in the Marine's story.

When Cordova wanted to introduce into evidence Bond's disciplinary records, Daniel sustained the prosecution's objection. Bond, who took the stand in civilian clothes, had several blemishes on his record, including drunkenness and an incident of reportedly pointing a weapon at someone.

The defense, thwarted in that area, focused on Bond's impressions of Looper. "He talked a big game, didn't he?" Cordova asked.

"Yes," Bond replied. "Without producing results."

In his direct testimony under questioning by Gibson, Bond said when Looper rekindled the friendship that had lapsed after high school, the defendant had talked about his plans for the Senate race.

Looper confessed that he was looking for a gun, something that was concealable in a crowd and was accurate, Bond said.

"He said there were only two people on the ballot and that if one died, he would automatically win," the Marine testified.

Bond related the story about how Looper told him he "busted a cap" in Burks' head, prompting the defense to question whether Looper would use street lingo to describe shooting someone.

Did you believe his story? Cordova asked.

"I thought he was talking like he always had. Talking big," Bond replied.

Bond identified the black Audi, which authorities believed Looper drove to the crime scene, as the one he drove to Bond's home the night of the murder.

The defense won a minor victory that prompted Looper to give the intense and wiry Cordova a high-five slap when Judge Daniel ruled that the testimony of Susanne Allen, a Georgia Democrat who campaigned for Looper, was inadmissible because it had happened years before.

Gibson wanted to show that Looper's idea of killing a political opponent wasn't new, and produced two witnesses, Allen and Louisiana political consultant William Lindsay Adams who each had had similar conversations with Looper .

Adams had answered an ad in the political magazine Campaigns & Elections, for someone looking for a campaign consultant. He recalled the conversation he had with Looper "made him uncomfortable."

"He said that if a candidate wasn't in the race at the end of the campaigning, that it wouldn't cost him very much to win," Adams testified.

Trying to determine if Looper was a serious candidate for the U.S. Congress, Adams asked him how much he thought a congressional race would cost.

"Not much," Looper reportedly said. "About 35 cents," which Gibson said was the price of a bullet.

Adams came forward after he learned Looper was a suspect in Burks' slaying, and said he avoided Looper's calls and would never work for him.

Allen, who campaigned with Looper in 1988 when he was seeking the Georgia House seat, recalled a lunch conversation she had with him .

"He told me there was one sure way to win an election," Allen said, making a gun with her hand. "I didn't understand and I said 'what, the NRA?'"

Looper told her that wasn't what he meant. "You mean shoot someone?" she asked incredulously.

"He said 'yes.'"

Because Allen's encounter with Looper happened so many years before the Burks murder, Daniel, who heard her testimony with the jury absent, ruled that it was inadmissible.

The prosecutors recalled Charlotte Burks to the stand, against the objections of the defense, to testify about changes to state law that emerged from Tommy's death. Since Charlotte was the sponsor of the legislation, Daniel said she could legitimately be recalled. "Your honor," Cordova said. "This is designed to help the jurors produce a verdict on emotion."

Gibson and his team took four days to lay out their case, painting a strong circumstantial version of what happened. They were never able to put the gun in Looper's hands, and never explained how gunshot residue could be found in a car that they said was not driven to the murder scene.

"The prosecution promised much but delivered little," said Cordova, asking Daniel to issue a directed verdict of not guilty. "They never established Looper's connection with the Smith & Wesson. We're supposed to make a quantum leap that Bowden supplied the weapon. Mr. Bowden was on the prosecution list, but he is not being called."

Cordova, who moved around the courtroom in a perpetual state of hyperkinetic ease, said the state had nothing to link Looper with the murder "except his absence."

Daniel listened to Cordova's fervent plea, but ruled that the prosecution had presented enough evidence to warrant continuation in the case.

All Poston and Cordova had to do was raise the question of reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury and the case was won. The slightest, yet realistic, idea that Looper might not have been the one to pull the trigger was enough to gain the brash young man's freedom.

First up for the defense was Looper's ally, John Bowden. The 73-year-old ex-mayor took the stand and Poston used his testimony to try and wedge in that concept of reasonable doubt. Bowden admitted he had lied to the TBI about where he bought the gun, and acknowledged his timeline of events in his sale of the weapon was hazy. Most importantly, for the defense, Bowden claimed Looper had never touched the handgun.

"I never gave, loaned or sold the gun to Byron Looper," Bowden said. "In fact, I sold it two or three months after I bought it."

However, under heated cross-examination by assistant DA David Patterson, Bowden recanted some of his previous testimony.

"What happened in December 1997," Patterson asked.

"There was some trouble at City Hall," Bowden replied. "We were just playing around."

Didn't the police take the gun from you that day? Patterson continued. Two days before Bowden's term as mayor ended he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and pointing the gun at then-Alderman Walt Phillips.

"If you sold the weapon up to four months after you purchased it in March 1997, how was it in your possession that day?"

Bowden, complaining that "his side of the story wasn't being told," shifted in his seat and thought for a moment.

"I might have been mistaken" about the timeline, he acknowledged.

It sounds like you have a selective memory, Patterson said. Bowden could remember he was signing payroll checks when Murphy returned with the weapons and that Phillips, Murphy and Bowden dry fired the guns in his office, but he could not recall the time he sold the gun, or to whom he sold it.

"You can remember two and a half years ago what you were doing, but you can't remember anything else," Patterson said, looking at the jury as he spoke. "Can you not remember or are you lying?"

"Mr. Patterson, I had 15 separate interviews with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. I might be confused about the dates, but I am not lying," Bowden shot back. "I started to tell them the truth, but they said they 'didn't want that lie,' they wanted the truth."

Whether it was Looper's abrasive personality or some Machiavellian scheme whose ultimate goal was known only to him that caused him to run through six attorneys in his murder case, the high turnover came back to haunt him on the day his defense attorneys opened their case. Looper had taken the court rules and the rights of the accused and stretched them to the limit and beyond. He had not answered the summons in his ouster case, had flouted court orders in a paternity suit and had ignored deadlines in his criminal case. The attorneys working for him were inundated with suggestions and proposed motions with paperwork getting lost in the shuffle.

When the time came for Looper to file his alibi notice, even though it had been twice extended, he ignored it. Now, when Poston and Cordova sought to follow through on their promise during opening statements to show how Looper could not have been in two places at the same time, Gibson raised an objection to their alibi witnesses.

"This is an ambush," Gibson said. "The defense made a strategic decision not to tell the state about this and to ambush us. It should not be allowed."

Before he rendered his decision, Daniel said he wanted to hear what the witnesses would testify about.

Barbara Reed, a neighbor of Reba Looper, testified outside the jury's presence that she saw Byron playing on the front lawn of his mother's home in Georgia with his dog at 11 a.m. - 10 a.m. Central time. Driving the nearly 300 miles from Monterey to Flowery Branch, Georgia would take at least 5 hours.

"You knew that morning that you saw him there on the day of the murder, but you didn't tell his mother that even after his arrest?" asked an incredulous Bill Gibson.

"She had never mentioned it," Reed answered. "She's a very private person."

The next witness, Russell Looper, also testified that he saw his brother at his mother's home that day. Russell had come home for lunch and met his brother at about 11:30 a.m. Again, a surprised Gibson tried to understand why it would take Russell more than a year to come forward with information that would exonerate his brother. Russell's answer was weak.

"So all this time your brother's been in jail and you had the key but never told anyone," Gibson said.

"That was a relatively stressful time," Russell replied.

Paul Voelker, a self-described "nosy neighbor" of Reba's also said he saw Looper there that day. He had not been forthcoming with the alibi, he said, because the TBI investigators were only interested in finding Looper's car. "They didn't tell me what they were investigating, either," he said.

"I didn't know there was a murder in Tennessee until a reporter came to talk about it," the nighttime grocery clerk said.

Gibson pointed out the absurdity of the witnesses' stories. "To allow this, your honor, would be a terrible miscarriage of the rules," he said.

Cordova raised this issue of ineffective counsel if the judge did not allow the witnesses, blaming Doug Trant for the strategy. Since the prosecution knew all along that Voelker and Russell Looper existed, they were not covered by the alibi rule, Cordova argued.

"We had no reason to believe that what Doug Trant did did not comply with the notification rule," he said. "If they are excluded, the effect on the defendant is catastrophic."

Daniel wasn't swayed by Cordova's arguments.

"You're basically placing the responsibility on Trant, but he was given an extended deadline for the notification and was informed later that his response was unsatisfactory," Daniel said. "I also queried this defense team about any alibi witnesses and was told that if it was to be an alibi, Byron Looper would be the only witness."

Daniel lowered the boom, effectively cutting off Looper's defense at the knees.

"Rule 12 is very specific. The state has met its requirement, but this defendant and the current defense team have not. The witnesses are excluded."

For the second time, Reba Looper took the stand in defense of her son. This time, Reba gave uncorroborated testimony that Byron was at home the Monday morning Tommy Burks died.

How did you know he was at your home? The defense asked. Byron came by Wednesday night, October 14 and stayed through at least Sunday night, Reba said. When she left for work the next day, she believed he was sleeping.

"It takes three towels for Byron to take a shower," she testified. "Two to walk on and one to dry off with." When she got home from work Monday evening, the bathroom was a mess, a trait that belonged to Byron, not Russell. 

The defense raised the issues of cars and tires, again, trying to punch holes in the state's case. Paul McDonald, a retired tire company executive who was also an expert on tire treads and forensic evidence, testified that the Cooper Viper tires would not have been on an Audi. In lengthy testimony, McDonald, who taught at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia, said the tracks were made by an American car.

"The tracks left by an Audi would have been about two inches closer together" than those found at the crime scene, he testified. "In my professional opinion, the tires that left those impressions were not mounted on an Audi."

Previously, TBI scientist Sandy Evans had testified that the tracks found at the scene matched the type that were on Looper's Audi 4000S when he bought the car. The state theorized that Looper bought the car in Georgia, left it in a parking lot until he needed it, drove it to the murder scene and then to Arkansas where he purchased new tires for the vehicle.

Under cross-examination, McDonald admitted that he had not seen the Audi and had based his conclusions on photographs and Evans' report.

With the last of the 19 defense witnesses done testifying, Daniel began closing arguments a little more than a week after the trial began. Prosecutor Gibson would go first, getting two hours to sum up his case and try to get the jury to believe Byron Looper was a megalomaniac capable of murder to further his political aims.

Assistant District Attorneys Tony Craighead and David Patterson laid out the prosecution's case point by point.

"He had a method to win the election," Craighead told the jurors. By killing Burks, Looper would be the only name on the ballot. He was the only person who stood to gain by Tommy Burks' murder. Witnesses could place Looper in Monterey on the morning of the slaying, both before and after the event.

"The defense points out that Wesley Rex was a special education student," Patterson said. "He may not read or write well and he may not speak like you or me, but he has been unequivocal and unmoved about what he saw that day."

As if eyewitness identification wasn't enough, Joe Bond testified that Byron confessed the crime to him, prosecutors argued. Other witnesses told the jury about how Byron had thought about killing an opponent to win a race, as well.

McCracken Poston made the defense's closing statement. They never linked Byron to the murder weapon, he said. The prosecution laid out a fine circumstantial case, but when it came right down to it, they weren't able to finish it. McCracken said the evidence shows that Looper was a victim of a conspiracy, because the loose ends just didn't come together. Joe Bond testified because he was angry Looper made advances toward his future wife. They asked the jury to consider why a man who was about to commit a murder would bother going to a fast-food restaurant just minutes before he pulled the trigger.

Poston then asked the jury to have consideration for Burks' family, but not to let that sympathy go too far. "I hope you know it's improper to consider sympathy in making your decision.

"But I hope you know that every member of this defense team has sympathy for the Burks family. Senator Charlotte Burks is a lady of dignity. But issues of sympathy are not to be considered by you, because sympathy clouds things, doesn't allow you to see the reasonable doubt here."

Gibson took on the task of rebutting the defense's summation himself.

"Why did Byron Looper stop at Hardee's?" he asked rhetorically. "Why? Because killers make mistakes and they get caught that way and sometimes for things they leave behind at the scene.

"He left a bullet at the scene, he left a tire print and he left an impression in the mind of a young man, Wesley Rex."

The final word in the murder trial of Byron Looper would come from the jury, but Daniel first had to instruct them on how to consider the myriad evidence that had been presented in the trial. More than 130 pieces of evidence had been introduced and 53 people had testified in the presence of the jury.

Judge Steve Daniel took his time telling the jury what they could and could not consider in their deliberations. His instructions to the jury took a significant amount of time and he gave them a thorough understanding of just what was expected of them. After he finished, the alternates were selected by lottery and the 12 final jurors retired to consider the case. For the first time since Tommy Burks was murdered, there was nothing Looper, Gibson or anyone else could do but wait.

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