Azotea defense wants prosecutor's office booted from case

Becky Campbell • Jun 1, 2017 at 8:56 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Defense attorneys in a double-homicide capital case asked a judge Thursday to boot prosecutors off the case because they helped find the defendant an attorney during his police questioning.

The two counts of first-degree murder against Eric Azotea, 45, stem from the shooting deaths and partial dismemberment of Arthur Gibson and Amber Terrell on Jan. 7, 2015. The two went missing that day, and authorities eventually tracked their last known location to Azotea’s residence at 135 Woodland Drive.

Their bodies, partially dismembered and burned, were found in the crawl space under Azotea’s home, according to state prosecutors and law enforcement.

The issued raised by defense attorneys Gene Scott, Lesley Tiller and Dan Smith, focused on prosecutors’ involvement with the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s Office to answer Azotea’s request to have an attorney present at his interrogation prior to, and after, his arrest April 22, 2015.

To rule on the motion to disqualify the prosecutor’s office, Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street viewed part of the video of Azotea’s questioning by Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Agent Brian Fraley and Carter County Deputy Chief of Investigations Mike Little.

Initially Azotea denied knowing anything about Gibson and Terrell’s disappearance, but as the questioning became more focused and investigators began to reveal more information they knew to Azotea, he eventually said he’d talk if his girlfriend was granted full immunity.

At one point before making that request, Azotea asked about calling a lawyer. Fraley and Little told him he could if he wanted to, or he could keep talking to them. Azotea seemed to waver in what he wanted to do, asking at times to call an attorney, then changing his mind and telling investigators he’d tell them everything if his girlfriend wasn’t charged.

During the back-and-forth of whether or not he wanted an attorney, investigators contacted Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks. Brooks testified at the hearing that he called co-worker Assistant District Attorney General Janet Hardin and asked her to make some calls.

Public Defender Jeff Kelly testified Hardin called him and asked if he’d go talk to Azotea. He told her he would if a judge appointed his office to the case. In the meantime, Brooks communicated by text with Assistant Public Defender David Crichton about speaking to Azotea. Crichton testified he told Brooks he couldn’t unless the public defender’s office was appointed.

Hardin was also called to the stand, but said she did not recall the conversation with Kelly, or an apparent phone call she made to Street.

Street’s administrative assistant testified that Hardin called Street’s office to ask if the judge would appoint an attorney for Azotea to be with him during the statement to police. Through that assistant, Street said he would not and advised that Hardin should call the public defender’s office.

Because of all of that, according to the defense motion, the district attorney general’s office should be disqualified by interjecting itself into the investigation by attempting to secure an attorney for Azotea so he would give a statement to investigators, which makes them “necessary witnesses in the case.”

Street reserved a ruling on that motion and one to suppress Azotea’s statement until he hears testimony from Fraley, who was unavailable for Thursday’s hearing.

Azotea’s trial is currently scheduled to start Sept. 11, but if the prosecutor’s office is disqualified from prosecuting the case and another DA’s office is appointed to it, the trial could be delayed.

Azotea remains jailed while his case is pending.

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