Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Assassination in Middle Tennessee

Preliminary Hearing

A packed courtroom in Crossville was the scene of Looper's preliminary hearing. Security was tight in the courthouse, and observers had to pass through several metal detectors and searches before they could enter the courtroom.

In addition to Barrett and Burgess, Looper retained attorney Luis Rivera, a friend from Puerto Rico. Rivera, when asked about his relationship with Looper, was circumspect.

"It's a long story," he said, declining to elaborate.

Byron Looper in court
Byron Looper in court

Looper, like any other jail inmate, was brought to the courthouse in handcuffs and leg chains, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit with "Cumberland County Jail" inscribed on the back. He changed into a light brown summer-weight suit before the hearing and was not handcuffed or shackled in court. He looked a little haggard, and it was clear he hadn't been able to keep up his deportment. His face was drawn and pale, and there were noticeable dark patches under his eyes.

First up was Putnam County Coroner Dr. Sullivan Smith, who described in graphic detail how Tommy Burks had been shot in the head with a 9mm weapon and how the bullet was recovered. In dry, detached terms, Smith testified how Burks had been shot from close range by a gunman who fired from an upward angle. Even though the shooter was more than 24 inches away - one clue that allowed him to rule out suicide - the force of the shot left unburned gunpowder residue implanted beneath the victim's skin.

Following Smith, Putnam County Election Chairman Perry Bartlett gave testimony that pointed toward the motive. Since Burks' death on October 19 fell within 30 days of the November 3 election, state law required that his name be removed from the ballot.

"It's such an obscure law that we didn't know it existed before this occurrence," he testified.

Gibson chose not to put farm hand Wesley Rex on the stand, despite the fact that Rex was the sole eyewitness who could place Looper at the scene of the crime. However, his background as a special education student could have provided Barrett with grounds to challenge his competency.   But Bill Gibson didn't need Wes Rex to take the stand in the preliminary hearing because he had what was considered "a powerful and explosive witness": Joe Bond.

Joe Bond testifies at preliminary hearing
Joe Bond testifies at preliminary hearing

Looper's sole emotional demonstration occurred when Gibson called Bond to the stand. He appeared visibly surprised when Bond appeared in the courtroom and consulted quickly with his attorneys. Bond was the prosecution's final witness in the nearly three-hour hearing, but his testimony was by far the most damaging.

"He said 'I did it, man. I did it,'" Bond testified under questioning by Gibson. "He said: 'I killed that dude.'"

Barrett, on cross-examination, questioned Bond's motive for testifying.

"Have any promises been made to you by them?" Barrett asked. The attorney was playing off the fact that Bond was afraid of being considered what he termed "an accessory before the fact or after the fact," because he had heard Looper talk at length about killing Burks, both before the slaying and then after.

"I'm here of my own free will," Bond said. "Whatever happens to me is irrelevant. It's the right thing to do."

When Barrett attempted to call Wesley Rex to the stand, prosecutor Bill Gibson objected. There was no need for Wes to take the stand, he argued.

Barrett replied that Rex could give testimony that would negate that Byron Looper is the person that he saw that day. Rex had given police a description of the man he saw, and had helped develop a composite sketch of the gunman, who was wearing glasses and a hat at the time of the slaying. Barrett wanted to introduce the composite which, while it did match Looper in a general way, could have represented any number of men in Cumberland County that morning.

The judge asked how Wes could possibly refute Bond's testimony and declined to allow the farmhand to take the stand. Wesley could have no knowledge of the confession Looper reportedly made to Bond, so his testimony would shed no light on that aspect of the case. Gibson had managed to demonstrate motive and means along with Bond's report of events, which was sufficient to establish the likelihood that Looper could have fired the fatal shots.

The judge didn't have to deliberate long to determine that probable cause existed to charge Looper with first degree murder. He ordered Byron Looper held without bail after a request by Assistant District Attorney David Patterson, who said the state was still considering the death penalty.

After Looper was returned to the jail, Barrett tried to downplay the effect Joe Bond had on his case. He admitted that Bond's testimony came as a surprise, but added that he had been in the legal profession long enough never to be totally shocked by what happened in the courtroom.

Burgess, however, was a little more reticent.

"The state has produced a very powerful and explosive witness," he said. "We've got our work cut out for us."

While prosecutors took advantage of the holiday break to prepare their cases, Looper, in a move that he was to repeat several times during the next several years, fired his legal staff.

Looper asked Barrett to contact the judges in the cases to ask for continuances.

"I am extremely disappointed with your inadequate representation in these cases and I hope that you will focus your attention to these matters to attain an adequate transition period so that my interests might be protected," he went on.

Looper then told Barrett to send all material related to his outstanding civil cases to Jerry Burgess.

A week later, Barrett filed a motion to be excused from Looper's cases. The Chancery Court granted Barrett's motion and he reported that he was sending all of his material to Burgess.

Jerry Burgess, however, told Barrett's office that he had not been retained by Looper in the ouster cases and that he was not going to represent him.

"He has made it clear to me and to Mr. Looper that he does not represent Mr. Looper in any of these civil cases, nor the pending criminal charges against Mr. Looper," Barrett wrote in a court affidavit.

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