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Death penalty, pre-trial publicity on the table during pre-qualification jury selection in Eric Azotea double murder case

Becky Campbell • Jan 28, 2018 at 5:08 PM

About 250 Carter County residents are expected to show up this morning in for pre-trial jury certification on two issues relating to a double homicide two years ago.

Those two issues are whether the potential juror can elect to impose the death penalty and to determine what pre-trial publicity they’ve heard and how it has affected their ability to sit as a fair and impartial juror. Each person will be interviewed individually so as to not taint the rest of the potential jurors. Logistics of the procedure will be tight as the actual voire dire will take place in the Carter County Criminal Court jury room in Elizabethton while the other potential jurors are seated in the courtroom.

Who’s Involved

  • Eric Azotea, 46, of Johnson City, faces two counts of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse. 
  • The victims were Amber Terrell, 22, and Arthur Gibson, Jr., 36.  They were last seen around Jan. 7 or Jan 8, 2015, by relatives in Kingsport. Their bodies were found April 22 in the crawl space of Azotea’s Woodland Drive residence in the Pinecrest community of Carter County off the Milligan Highway near Johnson City.
  • Prosecutors in the case are District Attorney General Tony Clark and Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks.
  • Investigators are Carter County Chief Deputy of Investigations Mike Little and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Brian Fraley.
  • The defense team includes Gene Scott, Lesley Tiller and Dan Smith.
  • Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street will preside over the trial.

What’s At Stake 

  • Death penalty. Prosecutors filed a notice in August 2015 to seek the death penalty if Azotea is convicted. To seek the death penalty in Tennessee, prosecutors must show one of a number of factors apply to the case. In Azotea’s case, the state relied on two factors when it filed the notice. One was that Azotea was previously convicted of one or more felonies — other than the present charge — whose statutory elements involve the use of violence to the person. The second was that Azotea knowingly mutilated the body of the victims after death. According to a 2004 Tennessee Comptroller’s report, overall, first-degree murder cases in which the prosecution has filed a notice to seek the death penalty cost more than life without parole and life with the possibility of parole cases. Death penalty cases cost more because they are more complex, more agencies and people are involved in the adjudication of the cases, both the prosecution and defense spend more time in preparation and the appellate process has more steps.
  • Pretrial publicity. As with most murder cases, Terrell and Gibson’s deaths received a lot of media attention. For one thing, the two were missing for three months before their bodies were found in a crawl space under Azotea’s house. Second, the homicides were particularly gruesome in that the victim’s bodies were partially burned after their deaths, and it all happened in a relatively quiet Pinecrest neighborhood where homes are just a stone’s throw away. With the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty, there was even more public scrutiny in media coverage. Potential jurors have already filled out questionaires that address their beliefs regarding the death penalty, so the questioning to qualify them could move quickly.

Pre-trial Issues

Azotea’s defense attorneys filed more than four dozen motions over the last two years, some regarding issues that could become part of the trial. A defense motion seeks to suppress Azotea’s video recorded statement to investigators, which will be used in the case, but the defense is also likely to drill into how officers obtained that statement and what pressure they used on Azotea.

Part of Azotea’s agreement to make a statement hinged on an immunity deal for his girlfriend, Kristen Jones. Early information in the investigation indicated Jones may have been involved in the killings, but Azotea told investigators he sent her to the store during the time he attempted to burn the victim’s bodies. The defense will also likely hammer investigators about how they pinpointed Azotea’s residence as a potential crime scene based on cellphone records from Terrell’s phone.

In a motion hearing last month, an expert on cellphone technology shredded the process investigators used to obtain a search warrant for Azotea’s residence. Street went as far as to call the process “gross negligence,” but ruled there was no ill intent on the officers’ part. They were basing their knowledge on limited training they’d had on cell tower pings.

What’s Next

Once the judge and attorneys weed out jurors who have already formed an opinion about the case or who cannot vote for the death penalty and weeded those people out of the larger pool, the case will recess until Monday, Feb. 5. That’s when attorneys will start the process to select a trial jury, likely consisting of 14 or more people, who will hear evidence in the case. The trial is scheduled for two weeks — Feb. 5-16 — and because it is a death penalty case, the jury will be sequestered during the proceedings.

Azotea has been in custody since his arrest April 22, 2015.

 

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