Judge allows warrants using victim's cellphone data in Carter County murder case

Becky Campbell • Dec 12, 2017 at 6:45 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The search warrants Eric Azotea’s defense attorneys wanted to keep from a jury next year can be used as evidence, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Azotea, 46, faces two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence in the Jan. 7, 2015, deaths of Arthur Gibson Jr. and Amber Terrell, both of Kingsport.

State prosecutors will ask for the death penalty if Azotea is convicted at his two-week trial in early February.

On Tuesday, Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street ruled on five motions filed by the defense in November and earlier this month. In the most recent motion, defense attorneys Gene Scott, Lesley Tiller and Dan Smith asked the judge to require prosecutors to hand over any immunity agreement promised to anyone. In particular, the defense asked to be told if Azotea’s girlfriend, Kristin Jones, was offered any special favors in a recent arrest on drug charges in exchange for her testimony in her boyfriend’s case.

Street granted that motion and ordered all discovery be turned over to the defense by Jan. 3. He also granted two motions dealing with redaction of parts of videos that contain Azotea’s interrogation by investigators. A fourth motion asking for the state to turn over a surveillance video from the Elizabethton Walmart store and some of Azotea’s medical records from Johnson City Medical Center investigators have in their files was granted.

But the fifth motion — which could have turned the case upside down — asked Street to suppress the search warrants obtained to search Azotea’s Woodland Drive residence, all the evidence investigators seized at the home and the DNA samples taken from Azotea. The defense’s challenge said the warrants were based on inaccurate information used by investigators when they tracked Terrell’s cellphone using Verizon and AT&T records.

The affidavits filed by Carter County Chief Investigator Mike Little and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Brian Fraley, claimed the cellphone records showed the exact location of Terrell’s cellphone to be Azotea’s residence the night they disappeared.

A defense expert testified the information in the warrants was flawed, and calculating the exact location of a cellphone based on cell tower pings, real time tracking and GPS coordinates was not possible. Ultimately, the state’s expert agreed, and said he would not have written the warrants to say Terrell’s phone was “at” the Azotea residence.

On the stand at the hearing, Fraley and Little both testified they based their warrants on information they understood to be correct.

Street allowed the warrants and the evidence, ruling the defense had not showed investigators knowingly provided false information or that they were reckless, a state legal requirement. Street said if the two experts had written the affidavits in the same manner, that could have been a basis to suppress the search warrants.

“The court finds there was no attempt to deceive the court,” Street said, adding later in his ruling that “at most, those statements were negligent, not reckless.” Negligence, however, did not meet the burden required by law, he said.

Street and the attorneys briefly discussed the next steps in the case. Preliminary jury selection is scheduled for Jan. 29-31. That process should eliminate potential jurors who have pretrial knowledge or opinions of the case or who cannot vote for the death penalty if it’s warranted.

Once that group is selected, the jury pool will be sent home with strict instructions to not have any encounter with media coverage or talk to anyone about the case. The trial begins with jury selection on Feb. 5 and is scheduled for two full weeks. During that time, the jury will be sequestered at an area hotel.

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