Rush to Judgment
He wasn't a suspect, and he wasn't in town, but DA Bill Gibson slaps a first degree murder charge on the unpopular Byron Looper

Cookeville, Tenn. [Oct. 23, 1998] -- Putnam County Assessor of Property Byron [Low Tax] Looper was charged today with first-degree murder in the shooting death Monday of State Senator Tommy Burks, a popular Democrat whose seat Looper was challenging in next month's election.

District Attorney General William Gibson, a Democrat, announced on national television today that Republican Looper was arrested about 1 a.m. as he returned home from an unexplained absence.

Gibson stated Looper was not a suspect at a press conference Thursday, but advised anyone who spotted him to notify law enforcement rather than approach him. Gibson said yesterday: "We are concerned about his unexplained absence and would ask for assistance in locating him."

Byron Looper
In Looper's case, long unexplained absences are not unusual. Earlier this year, The Putnam Pit found that his entire office staff lied about his absence during a trip to Washington with former Republican candidate for district attorney general, Jerry Burgess. There also is speculation that Looper attended law school in Atlanta while on the public payroll.

This is the latest skirmish between Gibson, who has been criticized for incompetence and politically motivated prosecutions by T. Michael O'Mara, who opposed Gibson in the Democratic primary, and Looper, an unpopular, scheming Republican who has alienated the Democrat-dominated Putnam County power structure and members of his own party.

One of Looper's lawyers in an unrelated case said his client was on a "suicide watch" in jail. In past the three months there have been two suicides in Putnam County jail.

"His life could be in danger," said Samuel J. Harris, the Cookeville attorney who represented Looper in a case where County Executive Doug McBroom withheld public records Looper needed to run his office.

"If we can speculate Looper killed Burks, we can speculate his life is in danger. There have been two "suicides" in the past three months of prisoners being held in the Thirteenth Judicial District in jails under Bill Gibson."

Meanwhile, the Democratic state senate majority dropped to 17-15 with Burks' death, and both parties have mobilized forces to move into the district with write-in campaigns. Three Republican lawmakers already have endorsed Burks' widow, Charlotte, in her write-in campaign to win her late husband's seat on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Although Burks was the favorite to win re-election over Looper, a dead man cannot be elected and Looper, without a write-in challenge, would win by default.

Tennessee's Democratic Party machine has targeted Burks' seat as a "must win" district as the narrow 17-15 Senate majority could be cut narrower if Looper wins by default.