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Bible Belt welts

Readers have more faith in suspect Looper than in DA Gibson, poll finds
Readers have more faith in murder suspect Looper than in Bible-thumping DA, polls find
In Cookeville, Solomon would cut the mothers in half

CAESAR Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

                  Shakespeare, Julius Caesar Act: I Scene: II
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - On Oct. 19, 1998, a single bullet killed state Sen. Tommy Burks as he sat in his pickup truck on his property a few miles east of here. In August, the state takes former Putnam County Assessor Byron Looper to the judicial woodshed to face charges he murdered Burks. Looper, an insatiable office seeker, opposed Burks' re-election on the state ballot two weeks later.

But a Putnam Pit poll suggests citizens are not sure who should get the whuppin' in the woodshed.

Before hearing his defense, about one in four said they thought Looper was guilty of shooting Burks, a Democrat. On the other hand, fewer than one in five respondents to a series of online polls said District Attorney General Bill Gibson could be trusted to fairly prosecute Republican Looper.

It is a miracle that Looper, an ornery, egotistical, thoroughly vain and political man whose political life displayed little in the way of family values or sentimentality, could garner such a presumption of innocence in a district where the DA's election was peppered with the slogan "I have faith in God."

Politics run deep through Middle Tennessee's Bible Belt, while religion is wide but shallow.

More characteristic of local good-ol'-boy politics are the 19 percent who want the murder investigation to end, even if Looper didn't kill Burks. The "get Looper whether he did it or not" mentality has consumed the local Democrat machine, and the pro-establishment daily newspaper, the Herald-Citizen, offers a "special section" online called "The Trials of Byron Looper."

Why such hatred? Looper unseated Billy Rippetoe, the incumbent property assessor, in 1996. An apocalyptic shudder preceded the anger then vengeance the incumbent Democrats thrust Looper's way as he demonstrated their own political mortality. Looper, a Democrat who changed parties for the campaign against Rippetoe, carried out a thoroughly negative campaign -- which was appropriate for the corrupt county politics he sought to penetrate.

"His actions since the 1996 election have shown that electing him was a mistake," observes Bill Kelley, whose conservative Web site is at http://members.aol.com/GP100SS/index.html.

"Within a month of his taking office, people who had supported him realized that he was corrupt. A few tried to have him censured by the Republican Party in early 1997. Most just watched as he became a village idiot.

"In one interview, he vehemently proclaimed that he was a Democrat. In another incident, he instigated a fight in the elevator at the county courthouse. He has been indicted for misuse of his office. Beyond misusing his office, he hasn't done the work that the tax assessor is supposed to do."

In every way, Looper was in everyone's face, and it was not long before the ruling Democrat junta decided to move against him.

Jerry Burgess, a former Looper attorney, told ABC News that Looper "is the most hated human in this area of the world."

So the machine went into action.

The Putnam County Commission refused to give Looper a copy its annual budget - never mind that it is a public record and that it was Looper's job to collect the taxes to run the government. And when Looper dragged a prominent junkyard owner to court to determine the value of property within the county, a county commissioner accompanied the junk man to court in order to prevent Looper from determining how much taxes the man owed.

Looper was nonetheless indicted for misusing his office. This is significant because the state has repeatedly refused to prosecute other public officials whose crimes are documented in pubic records. In the case of Democrat Putnam County Court Clerk Lewis Coomer, Democrat DA Gibson called off a state investigation into allegations Coomer was stealing money from prisoners. Other interesting but unprosecuted official misconduct includes former Cookeville Police Captain Wayne Bandy's torment of another officer by repeatedly, over a number of years, holding a gun to his head; forged criminal indictments in the court clerk's office; stolen money from the county trustee's office; improper expenditures by the county executive's office without authority; illegal sealing of election machines; illegal purchase of voting machines from a company without taking bids; police paying themselves overtime from funds generated by auctioning property they seized; and lying under oath in court.

A year before the Burks murder, the Democrat district attorney was willing to pay an informant to "set Looper up," even if he had to lie to do it, John Wayne Dedmon told The Putnam Pit in an interview.

Dedmon tried to take his story to the Cookeville city council, which participates in a district-wide agency for which Dedmon set up innocent people, but the councilmen objected to the message and defended the prosecutor.

Before Dedmon could testify for the defense, Democrat Sheriff Jerry Abston had him transported to a state psychiatric hospital, where he suddenly could no longer remember that he tape recorded Gibson asking him to set Looper up.

When Looper's attorneys asked the judge to force Gibson to give a sample of his voice so it could be compared to the Dedmon tape, the prosecutor refused to give it and the judge decided that Gibson could not be forced to provide a voice sample.

Although Gibson may be part of the story, he will not step out of the case.

There is no outcry over any of this official misbehavior.

Yet Looper was singled out and nowhere in the history of this region has so much disgust and repudiation of a man been so thoroughly orchestrated by his political adversaries.

Byron Looper, for all his foibles, is the victim of a culture where the pendulum of submission to authority has rendered average citizens plain stupid, and in their stupidity they rely on authority to deliver them from itself. People leave it up to agencies and bureaus to perform the tasks assigned to citizens in a democracy.

When a politician is murdered, it cannot go unavenged because it might embolden the citizenry and there might be wholesale murdering of politicians. This is the "public order" argument; the instability created by the murder of a public figure puts those with authority in the role of maintainer of civil order -- the public must be protected in case there is a conspiracy -- so increased authority is wielded for what is conceived as the common good.

But who monitors the authority? It used to be newspapers, but with the decline in the number of independent publications competing in the marketplace of ideas, the voice of dissent has been quieted.

Fewer than one dozen corporations now control the mainstream media in the United States, and they are driven by profit and desire for influence, not by reform or justice.

When Christian newspaper editors meet for the first time in Nashville in May, perhaps it will come as a revelation to them that they can do God's work by pursuing questions in this case and talk about their bottom lines at the same time. Otherwise, they will have been corrupted just like the politicians. Perhaps, as Shakespeare noted, they are too fat and not lean or hungry enough to challenge Caesar, let alone Pontius Pilot.

It's all about justice.

Is Christianity compatible with injustice?

Results of Looper reader survey

Public sentiment: Gibson is incapable of fairly prosecuting Former Putnam County Tax Assessor Byron Looper
Why give Byron Looper a trial at all? Let's kill him now.
Rush to judgment: He wasn't a suspect, and he wasn't in town, Gibson slaps a first degree murder charge on the unpopular Byron Looper (10/23/98)
Harris Column: The irrefutable fact: Byron Looper is not guilty (11/28/98)
Justice system needs to be scrutinized as the Looper case proceeds

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