Judge rules DA's office can stay on double homicide death penalty case

Becky Campbell • Updated Jun 22, 2017 at 11:52 AM

ELIZABETHTON — A Johnson City man accused of shooting a couple, trying to burn their bodies and cutting them up  lost a bid to have District Attorney General Tony Clark’s office booted from the case.

A motion to suppress his statement to investigators is still pending.

Eric Azotea, 45, was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse. The charges stem from the shooting deaths and partial dismemberment of Arthur Gibson and Amber Terrell on Jan. 7, 2015.

The Sullivan County couple 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 later found in the crawl space under Azotea’s home, according to state prosecutors and law enforcement.

Azotea’s defense team — lead attorney Gene Scott and co-counsel Lesley Tiller and Dan Smith — has filed dozens of motions in the case. The most recent asked Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street to take the case away from Clark’s office because prosecutors became involved in trying to find an attorney after Azotea said he’d give a statement if he could get an attorney.

Street heard most of the testimony at a hearing June 1, but the defense wanted to question Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Brian Fraley, who was not available at the earlier hearing. The issue boils down to when Azotea asked for an attorney and whether investigators stopped their interrogation.

About 50 minutes into the hours-long interview, which is documented on video, Azotea makes his first mention of a lawyer. He goes back and forth after that, commenting to investigators he wanted to talk to them, that he thought he needed an attorney and that he’d talk if investigators would grant immunity to his girlfriend, Kristen Jones.

Fraley testified that there was a point in the interview that Azotea made clear that he wanted an attorney, so Fraley and Carter County Deputy Chief Investigator Mike Little got up to leave the room. Fraley testified that Little commented that the “door’s still open,” for Azotea to give a statement and “I said we’d sit there all day to listen to what he wanted to say.”

Fraley said Azotea told the men to sit down and he’d talk, but there were strings attached in the form of immunity for Jones.

At some point in the conversation, Fraley called someone at the DA’s office to keep them informed about what was happening. In the process, Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks went to the sheriff’s office to see what he could do to facilitate the interview.

In the meantime he apparently spoke to his boss, Clark, who testified at the hearing Wednesday that they discussed immunity for Jones and agreed it was the right thing to do.

During questioning at the hearing, Scott asked Clark if he intended to honor the immunity deal his office made with Azotea regarding Jones, but Brooks objected and the judge didn’t make Clark answer. On the interview video, Brooks is seen entering the room, writing a document, signing it and having Azotea sign it.

“I think it’s clear in this case that General Brooks is all up in this thing,” Scott said during the hearing. “He’s in the video. He’s in the middle of it.”

Scott said he intends to call Brooks, Clark and others from the office if necessary to detail to a jury what happened in the Miranda process. That’s why he wanted the DA’s office pulled from prosecuting the case. But in the end Street denied the motion, even while acknowledging that Azotea invoked his right to an attorney and investigators took steps to obtain an attorney.

“What do you do at that point when a defendant invokes his right to counsel? … Stick him in a jail cell, let him go home? They did what they thought what was correct and set about to get an attorney,” Street said while making his ruling. At some point contact was made with an assistant public defender, who then talked to his boss, and they said they couldn’t get involved until they were appointed to the case.

A request was apparently made to Street’s office to make such an appointment, but through his assistant the message was that Street denied that request.

A court rule that dictates an attorney’s involvement in the substance of a case as a witness indicates the witness must be necessary. Street ruled the defense can present evidence of what happened without calling the DA’s staff.

He also noted that when he was an attorney, his advice to a defendant being questioned was to keep quiet.

“As a defense attorney, I received a number of these calls. ‘Would you come over and talk to to the defendant?’ I said, ‘Sure I’ll come over. The first thing I’m going to tell him is keep his mouth shut,’” Street said Wednesday. “I never got that call after that.”

The inference in Street’s comment seemed to demonstrate that if Azotea had counsel with him in the interrogation room, there likely would have been no statement.

Street still hasn’t ruled on the issue of the defense’s motion to suppress Azotea’s statement. He will allow both sides to file written summaries of their argument before he rules at an Aug. 2 hearing. The trial is scheduled for Sept. 11 to Sept. 22.

After the hearing, Azotea requested to be transported back to the state prison where he is being held while the case is pending.

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