Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee

The Verdict and Aftermath

There were still a few hours of daylight left when the jury announced it had reached a verdict. They had weighed the evidence and deliberated for a little more than 2 1/2 hours when Judge Daniel recalled the parties to his courtroom.

Daniel warned the courtroom against any outbursts before the jury returned, and the jurors filed into their seats to a silent court filled with standing observers. The foreman handed the verdict forms to the judge, who examined them and directed his attention to Looper, asking him to stand .

Daniel read the verdict: "We the jury, in the aforementioned matter, find the defendant, Byron Anthony Looper, guilty of murder in the first degree."

A collective breath was let out when Poston asked to poll the jury, asking each one in turn if the verdict was unanimous, which it was.

When the verdict was announced, Looper stood ramrod straight and showed no emotion. His only demonstration was to look back toward his mother and brother and offer a small, reassuring smile.

The jury's work was not done, because in Tennessee, the panel had to recommend a sentence to Daniel. He had some latitude to deviate, but that was unusual. There would be a brief sentencing hearing, where each side presented its case for its preferred punishment.

Reba Looper took the stand for a third time in her son's ordeal, asking for mercy. Her lower lip trembled and she sobbed quietly asking them to give him a chance for parole.

Kim Burks Blaylock recounted how she was forced to live her father's murder over and over - Hog House Road, where Tommy died, was her driveway, and she had to drive past the murder scene every time she left her home.

It took another half-hour, but the jury returned to the courtroom and recommended that Byron Looper spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance for parole. Had they chosen the parole option, Looper would have been eligible for parole when he was 87 years old. Unlike their stoic appearance when the jurors returned to the courtroom to announce their verdict, this time several members of the jury were visibly upset and one woman was weeping.

Again, Looper showed no emotion as the decision was announced. Reaction from the attorneys was not surprising.

Byron Looper after verdict
Byron Looper after verdict

"The jury has spoken," Poston said. "But we have grave concerns about the process." The defense team vowed to appeal.

Gibson on the other hand, looked weary, yet relieved. He had kept a framed photo of Tommy Burks on the wall of his office to remind him of his duty. He told reporters he was glad the trial was over.

"It's been a long battle," he said. "I don't take any joy in it, but I'm glad justice was served."

Charlotte Burks spoke for her family.

"Even though knowing that justice has been served, it doesn't fill the emptiness that we feel. We are glad the process works," she said.

Looper was taken by sheriff's deputies into custody without making a statement. Almost immediately, Cumberland County officials began the process of getting Byron Looper transferred to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

Charlotte Burks remains in the Tennessee General Assembly, where she works out of the same office her husband occupied for nearly 30 years. Tommy Burks' name still appears outside the doorway to her office, with Charlotte's nameplate below it. Bill Gibson is still the 13th Judicial District Attorney General. McCracken Poston and Ron Cordova have returned to their private practices in Georgia and California, respectively.

Lionel Barrett has left law practice and operates a Native American artifacts gallery in Chattanooga. He said nothing could make him consider returning to law practice. Doug Trant remains active as a criminal defense attorney in Knoxville.

There would be one last bit of irony in the strange case of Byron Looper, the ambitious, well-educated, driven politician with dreams of grandeur. He would very likely spend the rest of his life in a prison system that voters had recently said did not have to be "comfortable." In a referendum on the 1998 ballot, voters approved a law that revised the state's constitution which required that prisons be "safe, comfortable and humane." Supporters said the phrase "comfortable" had been misinterpreted in recent years, and that complying with the constitution had cost Tennessee millions of dollars.

The bill that put the amendment on the ballot was sponsored by Tommy Burks.

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