Letter to the editor

Justice system needs to be scrutinized as the Looper case proceeds


While I have never indicated that District Attorney General Bill Gibson is a corrupt, dishonest prosecutor, I have to question his motives in the prosecution of Byron Looper.

Nobody can know with certainty if Byron Looper was involved in the murder of Tommy Burks based on the evidence available to public at this time. Was there evidence on Looper's car or tires that suggest he was at the scene? Have prosecutors recovered a weapon with Looper's fingerprints or DNA?

According to media reports, they didn't have the car until after the arrest. Rumors fly about dragging the lake for a gun. The prosecution and investigating authorities have gone from "no witnesses" to "witness can identify someone looking like Looper."

What has me concerned is the mob mentality that is circulating among some folks. I say we owe Byron Looper a presumption of innocence, like we do to all Americans under the form of government that places laws above men.

I recently spoke with representatives of NBC's Dateline program about the Byron Looper case. I was aware that my statements would be edited (most likely to serve the theme of whatever story NBC chose to run).

I have represented Looper as his attorney in other matters, which is perhaps why the programs producers sought me out. I am not associated with his criminal defense team. No doubt I am subject to criticism by those who would say I am using the publicity of the Looper arrest to attack District Attorney William Gibson. But The Putnam Pit has long raised questions about Gibson's integrity and competency. If Mr. Gibson is going to hold political office, surely he understands that his character and job performance will continually be scrutinized. Indeed, for the American system of justice to work, he should welcome the challenge.

Who can doubt that Looper has been the subject of a concerted effort to embarrass and humiliate him by The Herald-Citizen, Bill Gibson, some lawyers who are suing Looper and others who have made Byron Looper the political whipping boy since his election. When asked by Dateline whether Looper was paranoid, I was thinking, like Woody Allen, "yes, but just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."

The TBI raid on Looper's office and the midnight arrest for the official misconduct lawsuit were as much publicity stunts as they were legitimate law enforcement tactics.

The scandalous charge that Looper forced his girlfriend to engage in sex had a glaring hole in it - namely, she continued to live there for another six or seven months. Attorney Henry Fincher's lawsuit on behalf of the girlfriend attacked not only Looper but his chief deputy.

The elevator fight story has been circulated around town as if Looper was the only participant. It takes two to tango, yet the fight eventually was construed as though Looper was a clown.

In this background, the murder of Tommy Burks occurred. Looper is an obvious suspect to everyone apparently except Bill Gibson. Gibson stated less than 12 hours before the arrest of Looper that Looper was not a suspect. His justification for this statement is that he only meant this in legal context. There is also the possibility that the statement was misinformation to help in the apprehension of Looper, the non-suspect. Of course Looper was and is a suspect. As a political opponent in an upcoming election, he had motive. But where's the evidence? Oh, an answer for that is that "we don't want to disclose our case." When a woman was stabbed and murdered here recently, the details were out to press immediately. The inconsistent statements of the investigating team on the Burks case suggest an apparent willingness to mislead the public about the case.

Foggy and rain. Don't forget the weather conditions the murder morning. Not the best lighting for identifying cars and killers.

What about Gibson's statements that Looper was armed and dangerous? I paraphrase, but Gibson clearly implied that Looper was a threat. When did you learn this bit of information Mr. Gibson? I assume Monday when you gathered crime scene evidence. At least by Tuesday, you would be of the opinion that Looper is potentially dangerous. But you didn't "warn" the public until Thursday. Thanks for your protective concern.

My worry is not whether Looper is the killer. That is entirely conceivable. But I would not be surprised that others had political and economic motive for the killing.

Mr. Gibson, who else did you investigate? Or did you focus exclusively on one person? Was the farm hand who found the body considered a suspect? What about family members (terrible to suggest when they are hurt)? A professional investigation would have looked into all possible suspects here.

What about the dispute over where to locate a training center? The city wanted to spend money to buy land; Burks wanted to use land already owned by the state. Money was involved.

A politician who has no enemies after 28 years in the legislature must not have been doing his job; that scenario does not fit the depiction of the successful politician that Mr. Burks was.

My concern is the process. Even if Byron Looper is convicted, even if he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, even if he is acquitted -- it is my hope that your participation in the criminal justice system will be scrutinized by the press and therefore by the voting public. I know you hope the same thing if you want to be a district attorney who follows the rule of law.

October 26, 1998

Samuel J. Harris is a Cookeville lawyer.