Murder trial in case of slain Tennessee teen reaches jury
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Jurors are set to begin deliberations in a murder trial involving the 2015 death of a Tennessee teenager who shielded friends from gunfire and was posthumously hailed as a hero by then-President Barack Obama.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers gave their closing arguments Wednesday afternoon in the trial of Christopher Drone Bassett, 22; Kipling Deshawn Colbert, 22; and Richard Gregory Williams III, 23. All three face first-degree murder charges in connection with the death of 15-year-old Zaevion Dobson. Jurors will begin deliberations Thursday morning.
Dobson, a high school football player from Knoxville, was on a back porch with friends on Dec. 17, 2015, when shots were fired. Police said Dobson suffered a fatal gunshot wound while shielding two girls, who ended up unhurt.
Although a single gunshot wound killed Dobson, prosecutors said all three defendants are criminally responsible because they aided in the commission of the offense. Prosecutors noted that at least 34 shots were fired from at least four different guns in the attack that occurred at the Lonsdale section of Knoxville.
”What it means is that all those bullets fired out there in Lonsdale by this group effort, it’s as if each and every one of these defendants fired each and every one of those bullets, under this law,” Knox County Assistant District Attorney Phil Morton said in his closing argument.
Dobson’s decision to protect his two friends was later praised by Obama as an act of bravery. Dobson posthumously received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2016 ESPYs.
T. Scott Jones, the lawyer representing Bassett, said the pressure that accompanies a high-profile case led to errors in the prosecution of it.
”Desperation breeds mistakes,” Jones said. ”This case is full of them.”
Jones cited issues involving the setup of the crime scene and also said Knoxville police investigator A.J. Loeffler ”lied” and ”cajoled’ his client during an interview the night of the incident.
After initially saying in the interview that he didn’t accompany his cousin Brandon Perry to Lonsdale that night, Bassett later acknowledged being there. Bassett added that he fired about five shots straight into the air without aiming at anyone.
At one point during Jones’ closing argument, Knox County Criminal Court Judge Steven Sword had the jury leave the courtroom and then reminded the lawyer to focus on the facts of this case rather than ”personal attacks on the integrity of these prosecutors.”
According to the state’s case, Perry was angry that his mother had gotten shot earlier in the day and was accompanied by a group of people as he headed to Lonsdale to fire shots out of anger. Perry was killed in a separate shooting later that night.
”This case from the get-go is about retaliation and revenge,” Morton said.
Morton also noted that a handgun found under Williams’ seat during a January 2016 traffic stop fired the bullet that killed Dobson. Kit Rodgers, the lawyer representing Williams, said his client wasn’t driving the car and didn’t own the vehicle.
”All we know is that Richard Williams was a passenger in that car,” Rodgers said. ”It was someone else’s car. When they stopped it for a traffic stop, they found a gun under his seat. I don’t look under the passenger’s seat in my friends’ cars when I get into them. Maybe I should. Maybe he should. But they didn’t find any palm prints or finger prints or DNA on that gun. It was just under his seat.”
Williams was convicted earlier this year of attempted murder in the shooting of Larry North, who was a reluctant witness for the state in this trial. Williams received a 36-year prison sentence in connection with the attempted murder charge.
Rhonda Lee, the lawyer representing Colbert, said North wasn’t a credible witness in this trial. North wore sunglasses throughout his testimony and said he had trouble remembering what happened that 2015 evening, though he offered more details in a videotaped interview with police from the night of the shootings.
Lee also criticized the state’s use of a rap video featuring the defendants as evidence they participated in gang-related activity. Lee said the video only showed that her client wanted to be a rapper.
”The tragedy of Mr. Zaevion Dobson is a tragedy,” Lee said. ”There’s nobody who’d disagree with that. But it would also be a tragedy for a young man to be convicted of first-degree murder that didn’t do it.”