Court hears of possible conflict in Azotea double-murder case

Published 5:17 pm Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye  Eric Azotea, who is charged with the murder and dismemberment of a young Sullivan County couple in January of 2015, appeared in Criminal Court on Wednesday.

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye
Eric Azotea, who is charged with the murder and dismemberment of a young Sullivan County couple in January of 2015, appeared in Criminal Court on Wednesday.

Court proceedings for the murder trial of a man accused of murdering and dismembering a young Sullivan County couple in January of 2015 have reached a standstill as the court works to determine if there is a conflict of interest in the case between the man’s attorney and state prosecutors.
Eric James Azotea, 44, of Johnson City, appeared in Carter County Criminal Court on Wednesday. Azotea faces two counts of first degree murder, two counts of abuse of a corpse and one count of tampering with or fabricating evidence in connection with the deaths of Arthur Gibson, Jr., and his girlfriend, Amber Terrell, both of Kingsport.
During Wednesday’s court appearance, the court addressed a possible conflict of interest involving attorney Steve Finney, who was appointed to represent Azotea.
“There is an issue that has come up before this court,” Judge Stacy Street said. “It has to do with the fact that Mr. Finney used to work in the District Attorney’s Office. Mr. Azotea was once prosecuted in Washington County and one of the prosecutors in the case was Mr. Finney.”
Street then asked Finney to address the court to explain how the issue had been discovered and what he did in response.
Finney explained that he and one of his staff members had been cleaning out his old office and in one of the folders was a news clipping of a case involving Azotea from several years ago. In glancing over the news clipping, Finney said he realized he had been a prosecutor for the state in that case, in which Azotea had been charged with carjacking.
After finding the clipping, Finney said he spoke with his co-counsel in Azotea’s murder case, attorney Gene Scott. Finney said he explained he had prosecuted Azotea but did not discuss any details of the previous case with Scott.
“We came and talked to Mr. Azotea and he didn’t remember me from way back then,” Finney said. “We didn’t recognize each other from before and I’ve been on this case since General Sessions Court.”
Finney said he also notified the District Attorney’s Office and the Criminal Court regarding the discovery. Finney also called the Board of Professional Responsibility, which oversees attorneys and court proceedings, and was told it was the state’s conflict and not his. Finney said the conflict would hinge on if he had learned something during his previous prosecution of Azotea that would be detrimental to the state’s case in the murder trial.
“I have conferred with my client a couple of times, with Mr. Scott present, and he has waived this conflict even though it’s not his to wave,” Finney said.
District Attorney General Tony Clark said after speaking with Finney and the court, he also contacted the Board of Professional Responsibility but was given a completely different answer than Finney received. Clark said the Board told him the conflict was not his but was Finney’s, which is in direct contradiction to the advice Finney received.
Clark said according to what the Board told him, the conflict hinged on the use of Azotea’s previous conviction in the case Finney prosecuted as an enhancing factor.
“When we filed the notice for death penalty, we included all prior criminal activity, which included some bank robberies and the carjacking which Mr. Finney prosecuted him on,” Clark said, adding he was told if the state didn’t use the carjacking conviction specifically as an enhancement it would “do away with” the conflict.
Street commended both Finney and Clark for handling the manner appropriately, however he was not pleased with the information the two attorneys received in response to their inquiries.
“Troublesome to this court is the fact they got two different responses from the Board,” Street said. “This is one of those sticky situations that comes up from time to time that we don’t always have the answer to. That is why we rely on the Board.”
Street directed Clark and Finney to make a joint contact with the Board of Professional Responsibility to get the matter sorted out.
“This court is going to require something in writing from the Board as to whether there is a conflict and who can wave it,” Street said.
Because the state is seeking the death penalty against Azotea in the case, Street said the case will be thoroughly reviewed and it is imperative that any issues be dealt with.
“We know it’s an issue now and I want this court to address it properly,” Street said.
Street tentatively set Azotea’s trial for September 2017 on the murder case but scheduled him to return to Criminal Court on June 1 for a status check on the potential conflict of interest and Board of Professional Responsibility’s opinion in the mater.
In court on Wednesday, Finney renewed a request to have his client removed from the Carter County Detention Center and taken somewhere else for housing.
“Our client is still in solitary confinement with the taking of his mat and no books other than the Bible,” Finney said. “We are asking the court to have him moved for his own mental health.”
Finney also told the court his client has lost significant weight while being held at the Carter County Detention Center.
Clark said the state opposed moving Azotea to another facility. He said Azotea was being held in solitary due to an escape attempt and the detention center was properly following their policies and procedures for housing Azotea.
Azotea was charged with attempted escape and vandalism in connection with the alleged escape attempt. That case has been bound over to the Grand Jury, which next meets on May 4.
In that case, officers allege Azotea vandalized his cell by digging out a cinder block wall and was found in between the walls of the detention center after he triggered a motion sensor alarm.
“He was found outside of his cell inside the walls of the jail,” Street said. “No one put him there, he put himself there.”
Finney argued that it was damaging to his client’s health to remain in solitary confinement.
“If you keep a man in solitary like this with no interaction and nothing to read you may not have a client to try,” Finney said.
Street responded, “If he had carried it to full conclusion there would be no one to try because he would have been gone.”
Street once again denied Finney’s request to have Azotea transferred, but said if Finney could show a reason for the move based on an issue of safety, health or mental health he could re-file his request.
The murder case against Azotea stems from an investigation into the January 2015 disappearance of Arthur Gibson, Jr., and his girlfriend, Amber Terrell. Police said the investigation led them to Azotea, who was arrested in March 2015. The couple’s remains were discovered at Azotea’s home in the Pinecrest community.
Police have theorized the motive for the murders was a drug debt which Azotea owed to Gibson.
During the investigation, officers learned Gibson and his roommate, Cory Logan Peters, were involved in selling drugs, and sometime in November 2014, Gibson had given drugs to Azotea but had not been paid, Carter County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Investigator Mike Little said.
In early January, Azotea contacted Gibson about buying more drugs and the two argued about the money Azotea owed Gibson from the previous drug sale, Little said. According to Peters, Azotea invited Gibson to come to his home at 135 Woodland Drive, in the Pinecrest community of Carter County, with a promise to not only pay him the money owed but to buy more drugs as well.
On Jan. 7, Gibson and Terrell went to Azotea’s home “and were never heard from nor seen again,” Little said.
According to police, Azotea confessed to the crimes during an interview following his arrest.

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