published Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Chattanooga gang murder case falls apart on witness reversal

Lila Statom of Chattanooga
Lila Statom of Chattanooga
Allison Kwesell

"There are twenty people who saw your child murdered. They are sickening, sickening people."

— Judge Lila Statom

Audio clip

Judge Stattom

A crowd gathers inside and outside the courtroom Monday to watch the witness on the stand.

The judge warns onlookers. Make no noises. Don't wave your hands. She tells the defendants not to look at the crowd.

"You may not like what you hear," says Lila Statom, the judge in the Hamilton County General Sessions Court. "Tell the ground that you don't like it, but don't look out."

Christopher Penn, 21, and Antonio Evans, 19, both members of the Bloods street gang, face charges of first-degree murder. In January the two were arrested after one woman among a crowd of onlookers told police she saw the two shoot 23-year-old Terry Parker to death on Grove Street. Parker was in the rival Crips gang.

Ten people were close by when the gun went off. Twenty people buzzed around Grove Street when police arrived to investigate. But she was the only one who came to court to testify. The charges hung on her every word.

Speak up, the judge tells her as she takes the stand.

"I can't really say who shot them. I am not fixing to testify against someone that I know I didn't see their face," she says.

But what about the statement you gave to police, the prosecutor, Lance Pope, asks.

"I told you the most important thing for you to do was tell the truth," he says.

Poll
Would you testify in a murder trial?

"Did you see the person or the people who shot Mr. Parker?"

"No, I did not," she says.

"Did you tell [the investigator with the Chattanooga Police Department] that you saw the people who shot Parker?"

"No, I did not."

"When you were on the scene, did you not see the individual that shot Terry Parker?"

"No, I did not."

The lawyers motion for a dismissal of the charges. Without the witness, there is no case, no charges. The detectives and prosecutors will have to wait to see if someone else comes forward.

Crowds outside the courtroom break out in applause. "Hyenas," the judge says in disgust.

No one is really shocked that it ended this way, says Boyd Patterson, head of Chattanooga's Gang Task Force and a former prosecutor.

Timid witnesses are the hallmark of gang prosecution, he says. Every city battles this problem.

"When witnesses are terrorized out of testifying, unfortunately, that causes major problems with the case against the gang member," he says. "I can't tell you how many times people give a statement and suddenly develop a case of amnesia."

Before Lila Statom dismisses the case, her tone turns harsh as she addresses the court.

"I don't know what happened out there that day. I just know that there are 20 people who know exactly what happened. No one has come forward. It makes me sick," she says.

To the victim's family sitting in court, she says:

"There are 20 people who saw your child murdered. They are sickening, sickening people."

Then, she speaks to the witness.

"I don't know if you saw what happened.

"People who choose to lie and not tell what happened when they saw someone murdered, they don't deserve to live in our country because they don't want to live in a free country.

"They want to live in a place that is ruled by criminals."

"This is not the end of this," Statom says. "Someone some day is going to come forward. Some day there will be proof. There is someone who isn't afraid of the Bloods and Crips."

Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this report.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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