On an overcast Tennessee morning about a month before the 1998 election, State Senator Tommy Burks was more concerned about the work to be done on his Putnam County farm than about the upcoming vote. There was no reason for him to feel otherwise.
A conservative Southern Democrat, Burks was highly regarded by his constituents and was almost assured of reelection. His Republican opponent in the race, Putnam County Tax Assessor Byron “Low Tax” Looper, had been so quiet during the election season that most folks in Burks’ district thought he was running unopposed.
Looper had a history of bizarre behavior. His reputation was such that Burks presciently expressed concerns to a friend about what Looper might do during the campaign.
Although he adopted the moniker “Low Tax” as an election gimmick, he eventually legally changed his name to include it. Looper believed because he was the only Republican in office in Putnam County, he was the victim of an ongoing political plot to ruin him. Worse than his paranoia was his ambition. He was frequently levying outrageous charges against perceived opponents or praising himself in lengthy press releases that he faxed across the country at county expense. Burks’s state Senate seat was supposed to be the next step in a journey that would end in Washington, D.C.
An alternative newspaper, The Putnam Pit, supported Looper and advanced his conspiracy theories. The paper remains convinced that Looper was set up by a Cumberland County political cabal.
His election to county office was more luck than anything Looper himself did. The Democrats had such a stranglehold on the seat that the GOP establishment did not even put up a candidate. Looper added his name to the ballot as a Republican without any knowledge of the party. However, the long-serving assessor was accused of malfeasance in office and was under a cloud of suspicion. Voters — but not as many as one might expect — simply chose the only other name on the ballot.
Low Tax was both corrupt and inept, although the ineptitude was far more troubling than over-staffing the office with political cronies and his own lackadaisical approach to showing up for work (He was enrolled in law school across the border in Georgia and would be absent from work for days at a time). Assessments were not recorded if they were made at all, tax records were not updated and Putnam County missed the state deadline to distribute tax bills, prompting the state to step in. Once an audit was completed the state took control over the office. Looper was left to manage his press releases and dream up new conspiracies.
Undeterred, Looper put his own name on the ballot to challenge Tommy Burks. The party considered the race such a lost cause that it provided no support. Looper did not want or need their help. He had a plan.
Even with a practically nonexistent opponent, Burks had planned a busy day of meet-and-greet in Putnam, Clay and Macon counties. Among the other things on the politician’s schedule, it was his daughter’s birthday and Burks was looking forward seeing his grandchildren for a celebration later that day.
A light rain was falling when Burks drove away from his two-story brick house and turned down Hog House Road to speak to farmhand Wesley Rex. Wes was on his way to a pumpkin field where a wagon had broken down. It was important for him to get the wagon fixed because on this day a group of elementary school children were coming on their annual pumpkin patch field trip.
They sat in their respective trucks and chatted about the chores for the day but stopped talking briefly as an older dark-colored car started down the road. After speaking for a minute, the two men went their separate ways. The strange car probably belonged to a constituent, they must have thought.
Wesley Rex was approaching the pumpkin field when he heard a “pop” sound, much like the backfiring of an engine. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the dark car approaching at high speed. He averted his eyes as the car zoomed past, trying to keep the dust out of his face, but not before getting a look at the man behind the wheel. Wesley did not think he had ever seen the man before.
He briefly considered the car, but quickly put it out of his mind as he set about fixing the wagon. As he headed back to pick up a forgotten tool, he passed Burks’s truck and noticed Burks had his head down. The truck was idling and Burks still had his foot on the brake. Wes had no reason to think anything was wrong at that point. Retrieving his wrenches, Wes started back toward the wagon and saw Burks was still sitting with his foot on the brake. This time, Wes thought something looked odd and stopped his truck. Burks’s head had dropped lower and his forehead was resting on the steering wheel.
Charlotte Burks was on her way to Cookeville when she saw Wes Rex driving toward her. She swerved to the side of the road as Rex slammed on the brakes and his truck slid on the gravel road.
“Miss Charlotte, something’s wrong with Mr. Burks,” Wes was saying, breathlessly. “He’s hurt awful bad. He’s bleeding from his ears.”
“Go get help!” Charlotte shouted at the teenager. “Call 911.”
Tommy Burks sat in his Ford pickup, his head resting on the steering wheel. There was blood everywhere in the cab and a glance by Charlotte revealed that Burks wasn’t just bleeding from his ears. Blood was flowing from a large gunshot wound to his forehead, just above his left eye. The back of his head was swollen. State Sen. Tommy Burks, popular politician and well-to-do hog farmer, was dead.
Looking for Looper
When Putnam County investigators arrived on the scene, they realized that they would not have jurisdiction in this case. Burks’s spread straddled two counties, and Burks had died just over the county line. They called in Sheriff Butch Burgess, District Attorney General Billy Gibson and the Cumberland County authorities.
Burks’s body was taken to the morgue where the medical examiner reported the senator had died from the single gunshot wound to his head. Death was almost instantaneous, the coroner told police.
The murder of a political candidate and long-time elected official prompted media inquiries from around the nation, and put Gibson and Butch Burgess in the center of a media storm. The word around town was that Looper had a hand in the crime, so reporters grilled them on the Putnam County Assessor’s status. The authorities would not commit.
“We have reached a point in the investigation where it is necessary to talk to Mr. Looper,” said one Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent cautiously.
What authorities weren’t saying was that Wesley Rex had positively identified Looper as the sole occupant of the dark-colored car he had seen on Hog House Road on the morning Burks was slain.
Wesley Rex’s ID only served to strengthen investigators’ suspicions. Looper was the only person authorities could find who had any plausible motive for shooting Burks. Rex’s positive identification put Looper at the top of a very short list of suspects and police made interviewing Looper their top priority.
But Looper was gone. His home on 4th Street in Cookeville was vacant and his car was missing. The media, both local and national, reported that a manhunt was on for the opponent of the deceased state senator from Tennessee.
Perhaps the most wanted man in America, Looper took a long road trip. Heading first to Little Rock, he bragged to an unbelieving former school-mate that he had killed his opponent and obliquely asked him to provide an alibi. The man, Joe Bond, testified that the word of “Loopifer,” as he was known in school, could not be trusted, so he discounted Looper’s claim. After borrowing a suitcase, Looper was on the road again before Bond saw the news and contacted police.
The fugitive headed across the Smokey Mountains to South Carolina, where he briefly talked to a former colleague in the Georgia House of Representatives where Looper served as a page (not as a legislative aide as he claimed on his resume). When she told him he was a wanted man, he seemed unperturbed, she said. Then he left, refusing to tell her his plans.
Putnam County authorities had Looper’s home under surveillance, never thinking that the assessor would simply return home and walk into their grasp. But that’s what Looper did. Acting like a man who had no reason to believe he was wanted for questioning in connection with a murder, Looper returned to his house at about 1 a.m. Friday morning, almost five days after Tommy Burks’s death.
Officer Michael Matt of the Cookeville police was sitting in a prowl car near Looper’s home when he saw Looper drive up in a dark Chevrolet. He radioed the news in as Looper went inside and disappeared from view for a few moments. He returned to the living room, where Matt observed him sitting in a chair reading his mail. In a few moments, TBI agents and investigators from Bill Gibson’s office showed up and summoned Looper outside. They placed him under arrest and took him to the Cumberland County jail.
While Looper sat in jail, his political opponents and friends of Tommy Burks moved fast to have him removed from the ballot and his office as tax assessor. They quickly filed an ouster suit naming several Putnam County landowners as plaintiffs, charging that Looper’s mere arrest constituted moral ineptitude, one of several factors required for removal.
Charlotte Burks also took action to prevent Looper from winning her husband’s place in the General Assembly. She mounted an aggressive write-in campaign for the Senate seat, and picked up nearly every supporter who had previously endorsed her husband. Normally apathetic citizens took part in the campaign, working door-to-door to educate voters about Charlotte’s campaign. Stickers were printed to be affixed to ballots, handbills announcing the change were passed out and political ads were run in the local media.
Even the state GOP took the extraordinary step of endorsing Charlotte Burks.
Looper spent the day of the election in the Cumberland County jail and was handily defeated by Charlotte. Ironically, one the votes his alleged act cost him was his own: Looper had not voted early, and had not made arrangements for any absentee voting. In keeping with standard jail policy, inmates were not taken to the polls. Charlotte outpolled Looper 25 to 1.
A week after his arrest, Looper appeared in court for the first time, entering a not guilty plea during his arraignment. Looper’s attorneys for the arraignment were Lionel Barrett, a prominent Nashville criminal defense attorney described as “an institution around the criminal courts” and Jerry Burgess, a local lawyer who had once faced off against Gibson in the district attorney election.
Barrett was an ardent death penalty foe: “No circumstances, period, would ever make me favor the death penalty,” he said once. Barrett served as the president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers twice and was the first recipient of the association’s award for “extraordinary effort” in defending capital murder cases. The award now bears his name.
It is probably appropriate to point out that Barrett’s management of a Tennessee death row inmate’s was heavily criticized by the American Bar Association in a 2011 Journal article. The piece alleged Barrett’s lack of attention to the case as the major reason the convict could be executed. In the article Barrett agreed to the allegations made by the Journal and blamed his crumbling finances as being a distraction.
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.
Looper was brought to the courthouse in handcuffs and leg chains, wearing a bright orange jumpsuit. He changed into a 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 the Coroner, Dr. Sullivan Smith, who described how Tommy Burks had been shot in the head with a 9mm weapon. Smith testified that Burks had been shot from close range by a gunman who fired from an upward angle. The bullet was recovered from Burks’s body and was in good shape for analysis.
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 because his background as a special education student could have provided Barrett with grounds to challenge his competency. But Bill Gibson didn’t need Wes to take the stand because he had what was considered “a powerful and explosive witness”: Joe Bond, the friend of Looper’s whom he visited immediately after the shooting and to whom Looper allegedly confessed.
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.'”
Bond confirmed the suspected motive when he testified that Looper had told him about the statute during his confession.
The judge didn’t have to deliberate long to determine that probable cause existed to charge Looper with first degree murder. After Looper was returned to the jail, Barrett tried to downplay the effect Joe Bond had on his case. 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’s new defense attorney, Doug Trant was present when Looper appeared in court on February 5, 1999 to enter a plea.
The Honorable J. Steve Daniel of Murfreesburo, a 15-year veteran of the Tennessee bench, was named to oversee the case. Daniel had an impressive resume: He was former president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and the Tennessee Trial Judges Association. He spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, serving as the Reserve Military Judge for Kentucky and Tennessee and holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Daniel had been awarded the Outstanding Service Award by the Tennessee Judicial Conference in 1995.
Evidence and Allegations
Prosecutors got a break in the Looper case in early March when a road crew found a 9mm handgun along Interstate 40. Ballistic tests showed that the weapon was the gun that killed Tommy Burks. The pistol was in poor shape, but its serial number was readable and was quickly traced back to a close Looper friend – former Monterey Mayor and Assessor’s office employee John Bowden. Bowden acknowledged that he had once owned the gun, but said he had sold it in 1997 or 1998 to a flea market gun dealer. Bowden and Looper had been political cronies, and when Bowden was defeated in a December 1997 election, Looper hired him as a “tax investigator”.
A central part of Looper’s defense was his insistence that he was framed as part of a wide-reaching political plot, and as proof of that plot he offered the testimony of John Wayne Dedmon, 33, who had rented a room from Looper and worked off criminal charges of his own by serving as a police informant.
In 1997, Dedmon, facing charges of passing bad checks, began working for Gibson. He infilted a local gambling ring that was using pinball machines for gaming. However, Dedmon became angry when Gibson confiscated his earnings from the undercover work to cover his fines and restitution. He claimed that he secretly recorded the prosecutor asking the informant to “set him up,” meaning Looper. Gibson denied that any such conversation ever took place and some people who heard the tape said the voice was clearly not his.
Trant said that he intended to introduce the tape into evidence in Looper’s murder trial and a hearing was set by Daniel. But Dedmon vanished and the $42,000 Corvette he had purchased — with a worthless check –turned up abandoned.
“I am afraid that something bad has happened to my friend John,” Looper told a Nashville newspaper. “It could be that he has met with foul play.”
Something bad did happen to Dedmon, but it was of his own making. Dedmon, an admitted drug abuser, showed up at his mother’s home about a week later and in a fit of rage destroyed the windows of a parked car. A few hours later he was involuntarily committed to a Chattanooga psychiatric hospital.
Dedmon later appeared before Daniels and said he could not recall anything before the last few weeks. “I’ve been on drugs real bad,” he said as his role in the case ended.
Gibson allowed the deadline for seeking the death penalty to pass without posting a notice of intent. The Burks family had a strong say in Gibson’s decision, and said they felt life in prison in general population would be worse punishment than a solitary cell on death row.
Lawyers Go, Lawyers Come
At the next court hearing in July, 1999, approximately one month before the case was set to go to trial, Trant, a 20-year trial lawyer and former head of the Knox County Democratic Committee, told the court he could no longer represent Looper. He previously filed a motion citing irreconcilable differences with his client and made vague references to ethical concerns.
“I regret that I have to make this motion, but it has come to the point where I can no longer ethically represent Mr. Looper,” Trant told Daniel. Trant said defending the case in the manner Looper wanted would result in a violation of Tennessee Code of Professional Conduct which deals with representing a client within the bounds of the law.
Daniel granted Trant’s request, ordering him to file under court seal the exact nature of his ethical dilemma. Daniel agreed to a court-appointed attorney for Looper. Crossville attorney Larry Warner was appointed to act as defense counsel in the case. Through no fault of his own, Warner’s fate would be the same as all Looper’s previous lawyers.
The prosecution announced in court filings that TBI agents had found the Audi that Looper allegedly drove when he assassinated Burks. After the shooting Looper left the car at a repair shop, and then advised the shop to sell it and keep the proceeds. It was confiscated from the subsequent owner and turned over to the TBI.
Here and there, little bits of evidence turned up. A cashier at the drive-up window at Hardee’s in Crossville said a man matching Looper’s description caused a small scene shortly before the slaying; his order was incorrect and he sat at the drive-thru waiting for it to be corrected, the woman testified. When the order was complete, Looper “threw the money at the window,” she said.
Looper summoned the editor of the Crossville Chronicle and complained that he was not being represented fairly. Looper said he distrusted his court-appointed lawyers and that the case was not progressing as he wanted. Looper was reluctant to talk about specifics of his case, except to say that his family had found two other attorneys that he would like to see take it on.
McCraken “Ken” Poston, a skilled defense attorney who served in the Georgia legislature and had known Looper from his days as an aide, wanted in on the case. Looper said his mother had taken out a second mortgage on her home to pay his fee. The second lawyer, Ron Cordova, was a former Orange County, California prosecutor who had been following the case out of personal interest and said if Poston was going to serve as counsel, he would donate his services for free.
With extreme reluctance, Daniel allowed the men to take over the case, noting that their trial experience meant he was going to adhere to the set timeline and would grant no more continuances.
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.
Before a crowded 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 Looper wanted power and that he would do anything – including murder — to achieve it.
“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.”
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 Burks was shot, and Joe Bond would tell them how Looper had confessed.
Other witnesses would testify to Looper’s predilection for violence as an electoral strategy. Those witnesses included a political consultant from Louisiana who answered an ad in Campaigns & Elections magazine placed by Looper. The consultant turned down the job after Looper said the cost of winning his race was only 35 cents — the price of a bullet, Looper clarified.
Ken Poston opened for the defense and was severely limited in his options to refute the state’s circumstantial case. Poston had no plausible defense to present, so he painted Looper as the victim of conspiratorial political enemies. Looper was a zealot, Poston 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.”
Why Tommy Burks would be sacrificed by the cabal when any victim would suffice was never brought up.
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, but 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. 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’s corpse could plainly be seen, his foot still on the brake, his face mottled with blood and gunshot residue.
The state presented 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.
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.
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.
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. On cross-examination Bowden admitted he had lied to the TBI about where he bought the gun. It was a police issue weapon available only to peace officers. One of Bowden’s cop buddies completed the straw purchase. Bowden 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.
With the last of the 19 defense witnesses done testifying, Daniel began closing arguments a little more than a week after the trial began. 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.
As if eyewitness identification wasn’t enough, Joe Bond testified that Looper confessed the crime to him, prosecutors argued. Other witnesses told the jury about how Looper had thought about killing an opponent to win a race, as well.
McCracken Poston made the defense’s closing statement. They never linked Looper 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. Poston said the evidence shows that Looper was a victim of a conspiracy, because the loose ends just didn’t come together.
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 21/2 hours when Judge Daniel recalled the parties to his courtroom. When the verdict of “Guilty” 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. 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.
Again, Looper showed no emotion as the decision was announced.
In 2013, Byron Looper was found dead in his prison cell from an apparent heart attack. Although he had been placed in restraints earlier for assaulting a pregnant civilian prison employee, he was not restrained at the time of his death. The subsequent investigation concluded his death was from natural causes. He was 48 years old.