UPDATE: Local prosecutor censured over 'Facebook murders' book

Johnson City Press • Updated Jul 17, 2018 at 7:55 PM

A prosecutor who wrote a book about his experiences with the Johnson County “Facebook murders” case has been censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The court’s board of Board of Professional Responsibility said in a news release Tuesday that 1st Judicial Assistant District Attorney Dennis D. Brooks had violated two rules, as the book represented both a conflict of interest and prejudice to the administration of justice.

“Mr. Brooks entered into an agreement to publish a book about the convictions of three people for murder, after he was successful in getting murder convictions as the lead prosecutor in the matters,” the Board wrote in the release. “Mr. Brooks’ book was published prior to the conclusions of the appeals of two of the convictions.”

Brooks was the lead prosecutor in the May 2015 trial of Barbara Potter, 67, and Jenelle Potter, 36. They and Marvin “Buddy” Potter, who is Barbara Potter’s husband and Jenelle Potter’s father, were all convicted in the murders of Billy Payne and Billie Hayworth, a couple whom Jenelle Potter accused of harassing her.

Payne and Hayworth were murdered at their residence at 128 James Davis Lane in Mountain City on Jan. 31, 2012. Both were shot in the head, and Payne had his throat cut. Hayworth was shot while holding her 6-month-old son. The baby was uninjured but left in its dead mother’s arms.

After the convictions, Brooks penned “Too Pretty to Live: The Catfish Murders of East Tennessee” in February 2016, just eight months after the women were convicted and while their cases were under direct appeal to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. Defense attorneys filed a motion to stop the direct appeals so they could deal with new information they believe Brooks revealed in his book.

“After Mr. Brooks’ book was published, one of the defendants filed a motion for a new trial and a writ of error coram nobis alleging that the book contained evidence which had not been provided to the defense. The appeals of two of the convictions were stayed for 18 months pending a hearing on these matters.”

In January of this year, Senior Judge Don Ash of Murfreesboro ruled that the women would not receive a new trial.

A public censure is a rebuke and warning to the attorney, but it does not affect the attorney’s ability to practice law.

In a statement released to the Johnson City Press, Brooks said the complaint was his first in 20 years of prosecuting cases and he regretted that this case resulted in one. He decided not to contest the censure, but he disagreed with the decision.

“First, in my opinion I had no conflict of interest in both writing this book and representing the State of Tennessee,” Brooks wrote in the statement. “The book was conceived and written following the final jury verdicts on the three defendants. I wrote it on my own time.”

Brooks said the district attorney general at the time, the late Tony Clark, was aware of the book before Brooks agreed to publish it.

“I told General Clark that he was welcome to review the book prior to me making an agreement,” Brooks wrote in Tuesday’s statement. “He told me he was happy for me to be publishing the book and that his review would not be necessary. The only matter left in our trial court was a pending Motion for New Trial which is a routine proceeding on my end that allows the defense to preserve issues for appeal. At that point I perceived that my interest as an author and as a prosecutor on the case were not in conflict. It was my duty to the State to ask the trial court to uphold the jury’s verdicts (absent any new evidence, which there was none), and the book posed no obstacle to that duty.”

Secondly, Brooks stated that a reviewing judge denied the petitions filed by the Potter women that the book presented new evidence necessitating a new trial.

“The petitions were frivolous in my opinion, and the judge found nothing within them that merited a new trial,” Brooks wrote. “Moreover, my understanding from the Attorney General’s Office is that the Potter women’s attorneys did not appeal that judge’s decision, meaning his decision is final. I greatly regret that the petitions in any way slowed their appeals process, but no matter when I published the book, I suspect the Potter women would file something in some court seeking relief from their life sentences.”

Brooks said he was proud of his efforts in writing this book, as well as those of the prosecution team in getting guilty verdicts in the case.

“The book allowed people in the community to better understand this unusual case, and through that medium, I hope that it educates readers as to how prosecutors and investigators go about their jobs to seek justice,” Brooks wrote in the statement. “People should know more about how our governmental systems work. Had I began writing the book prior to the jury verdicts or included within the book important facts withheld from defense attorneys, I would agree that I acted unethically, but that is not the case. I respectfully disagree with the Disciplinary Counsel’s conclusion.”

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