Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee

The Beginning of the End

Judge Daniel, a jurist with the patience of Job, sat back in his plush chair behind the Cumberland County bench and ran his fingers through his thinning hair.

"How many different attorneys so far now? Six? It's like the story about the fellow who was divorced nine times," he said with grim humor. "Somebody said at some time he might have to determine it was his fault."

Daniel had just heard presentations by Ken Poston and Ron Cordova about why they should be allowed to take over Looper's case and he was not happy. The hearing took place in mid-April and involved a rehashing on the record of Looper's travails with his legal counsel.

Yes, he admitted on the stand, when he was charged with Burks' murder, he had been represented by Lionel Barrett, Jerry Burgess and Luis Rivera. Yes, Looper acknowledged, when they learned about Joe Bond's bombshell testimony, they dropped his case. No, he said, they had not been paid.

Yes, Looper further admitted, Doug Trant had been hired to take their place and he had been promised $100,000 to defend him.  Trant received about $30,000 before he stepped down after philosophical disagreements with his client.

Looper testified further. Yes, in the application for indigent status Byron had forgotten to mention the $20,000 he had in retirement accounts which he transferred to his mother Reba.   Yes, per the order of this court, Looper had paid the $20,000 to the state to defray the costs of Warner and Upchurch.

Now, Looper said under questioning by Cordova, he believed Warner and Upchurch were not doing a good job and he wanted new attorneys, specifically, Poston and Cordova.

Summing up his position for Daniel, Looper returned to a familiar theme.

"There's no question that I, more than anyone, want to try this case, but I want it to be a fair trial. I don't want to be railroaded by my political adversary, Billy Gibson."

Daniel was hesitant about bringing new attorneys on the case. It wasn't the time limits that disturbed him: the case was going to trial in August regardless of who represented Looper. Instead, allowing two attorneys who did not normally practice in Tennessee might provide Looper with an opening for attorney malpractice and result in a mistrial or reversal. So he decided to proceed cautiously. Both Poston and Cordova were competent lawyers and each had once served in a state legislature, but Tennessee had rules for practice before the bar and he would make sure those two followed them.

Cordova, he said, would not be allowed to join the case unless he was associated with an attorney in good standing who lives in Tennessee. As for Poston, who lived in Georgia but had an office in Chattanooga, he would not be allowed on board until Reba Looper could come and testify about where the money to pay him was coming from.

"We're going to have Mrs. Looper come up here and testify," he said, wearily. "And I'll see the checks."

Looper was pleased by the turn of events.

"Things will pick up rapidly now," Looper said. About Cordova, a Dartmouth graduate and alumnus of the University of Southern California Law School, Looper said he had a kindred spirit.

"We have a lot in common," he said. "In law, in politics. He understands what I have been through."

On the Friday before Mother's Day, Reba Looper took the stand in defense of her son. Reba looked bone weary and pale as she took the stand to testify about her and her son's assets. Reba told the court that her son had transferred ownership of his retirement accounts to her, but that was meant to reimburse her for part of the $30,000 she paid Trant.

Reba Looper testifies
Reba Looper testifies

Daniel was still hesitant to bring Cordova and Poston into the case, and maintained that they still had not met the conditions of state law.

"That law is unconstitutional, your honor," Cordova claimed. "Not only does it infringe on Mr. Looper's right to counsel, it infringes upon my own rights, as well."

At the end of the hearing, Daniel said he would research the law and the cases cited by Cordova in his argument. Daniel hinted that he was leaning toward allowing them in. He admonished them, however.

"We're going to try this on August 14, and we're not going to have any last-minute glitches," he said. "You're going to have to be here every two weeks between now and then. I think Mr. Looper should be represented by whoever he wants as long as we get this case up and going."

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