Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee

Poor Byron, Rich Byron

Once he was removed from the assessor's office, Looper's income dropped to $95 per month - the amount of his military disability pension. Faced with ever increasing legal bills, in mid-April he applied for and was granted pauper status after the judge who had overseen his ouster suit took a look at Looper's finances.

A judge had ruled against Looper in the recall suit in January, but almost immediately Looper and attorney Chantal Eldridge vowed to appeal. By being declared indigent, Looper would be able to continue the appeal of the summary disposition of the case without paying filing fees up front. The form for indigent status required the applicant to list employment; Looper wrote: "oustered Putnam County Assessor."

The summary judgment had no effect on any other of Looper's court troubles. If he was to claim pauper status in the murder trial, he would have to convince Judge Daniel that he was broke. A week later, Looper tried to do so.

Looper filed a request for state assistance in his murder trial, but he was not looking for help to pay his lawyer bills. Looper took the bold move of asking the state to pay for technical and investigative services, something that the state typically did not pay for.

Daniel decided to hold a hearing on Looper's request shortly after Gibson allowed the deadline for seeking the death penalty to pass without posting a notice of intent. Looper could have been executed if he had been found guilty, because assassination of a public official is one of the acceptable aggravating factors in a Tennessee death penalty case.

The Burks family had a strong say in Gibson's decision, and Daniel gave the family permission to issue a statement explaining the family's position. Kim Burks Blaylock, Tommy's daughter, had the harshest words for Looper.

"I want the person who killed my daddy to receive the maximum punishment available," she said. "With our system the way it is, I feel that life without parole in the general population of a prison, not in the privacy of a cell on death row with special privileges, would be the worst punishment."

For the rest of the early spring, Gibson, Daniel and Trant were busy dealing with the Dedmon issue, and it was not until mid-May that the parties got back together in court to deal with Looper's pauper plea.

"It's just not realistic that I can maintain an adequate defense with the extraordinary resources the state has," Looper explained to Daniel.

For the first time since he was arrested, Looper took the stand in his murder case, after Trant was assured that any questions asked by Gibson would deal solely with the pauper appeal. The district attorney was protesting Looper's motion for investigatory assistance.

Trant told Daniel that his fee had been paid by Looper's mother, who had deeded property to him in return for his work. Byron then transferred ownership of some retirement accounts to his mother in return.

"There's been a tremendous amount of investigation by the state," Trant said. "We just can't keep up to the point where there would be a level playing field."

Gibson took issue with Looper's request. "The state has investigated this case and everything that's been found has been turned over to him, good, bad or indifferent," he countered.

Daniel deferred making a decision until both sides answered some lingering questions. He wanted each attorney to brief him on the precedent for situations like Byron's, and he said he wanted more details about Looper's retirement funds and his financial relationship with his mother.

Two weeks later, as the murder investigation entered its eighth month, with a trial date set for two months hence, the state asserted that Looper was not indigent and was actually receiving $500 a month from one real estate transaction and stood to gain an additional $23,000 from another property sale. In addition, Looper had two retirement funds with more than $20,000 in them, a prosecution investigator said.

Gibson claimed Looper's testimony at the previous hearing was knowingly false. In addition, there was legal precedent for declining requests like Loopers, the DA charged.

At the next court hearing in July, 1999, approximately one month before the case was set to go to trial, Daniel ruled on Looper's indigency motion. In what was by now commonplace in the Looper story, Daniel complained that information he asked for from the defendant    had not been provided.

"I ordered that certain financial information be provided on this motion and asked for affidavits, and those have not been provided," Daniel said, clearly agitated with Looper's failure to follow court orders. "Therefore the motion is overruled."

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