Judge denies motion to recuse DA’s office in double homicide case

Published 6:31 pm Wednesday, June 21, 2017

District Attorney General Tony Clark and his office will continue prosecution of a double murder suspect after a Criminal Court judge denied a defense motion to recuse Clark and his staff.

In May, attorneys for Eric James Azotea, 45, of the Pinecrest community, filed a pair of motions in the case — one seeking to suppress statements Azotea gave to investigators in which he reportedly confessed to two murders and one seeking to disqualify Clark and his office from prosecuting the case claiming they are necessary witnesses in the case. 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 2015 deaths of Art Gibson and Amber Terrell.

On June 2, Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street heard testimony and arguments regarding the motion to recuse the District Attorney’s Office during a motion hearing. That hearing was continued until Wednesday due to one of the witnesses — Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Brian Fraley — being unable to take part in the June 2 hearing.

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On Wednesday, testimony resumed, and attorneys for the defense and the State provided arguments supporting their stand on the issue.

The issue at question in both motions deals with the statement Azotea provided to investigators. The defense states that during questioning by investigators Azotea invoked his constitutional right to counsel. After Azotea had invoked his right, the motion states that investigators communicated his request to the District Attorney’s Office — specifically Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks — which then attempted to secure counsel for the defendant and also advised investigators how to proceed after Azotea asked for an attorney.

In the motion to suppress Azotea’s statements, his attorneys state that investigators continued to speak with, and question, Azotea even after he asked for an attorney. In the state’s response to the motion to suppress, the state said Azotea initiated the continued discussions and later rescinded his request for an attorney and asked to negotiate a deal to get immunity from prosecution for his girlfriend, Kristen Jones, in exchange for providing a statement.

Because the District Attorney’s Office was involved in attempting to find counsel for Azotea, Attorney Gene Scott said they became necessary witnesses in the case when it comes to whether or not Azotea’s 5th and 6th amendment rights were violated.

“I think it’s clear that General Brooks is all up in this case,” Scott said. “He was in the video. He wrote out the immunity agreement.”

In his argument to the court, Brooks referred to the defense’s attempt to call him and his colleagues as witnesses as “running up goat trails.”

Brooks argued that he, Clark and other members of Clark’s staff were not “necessary witnesses” in the case.

In rendering his ruling on the motion, Street said state law dictates that no attorney shall be involved in prosecuting a case in which they are to be called as a “necessary witness” in a “contested” matter.

“I find the issue is not contested,” Street said. “He asked for a lawyer, and they tried to get him one.”

Street further said the video interview shows the interactions which are pertinent to whether or not Azotea rescinded his request for an attorney. Street ruled that conversations between members of the District Attorney’s staff were not relevant to whether or not Azotea invoked his right to counsel and then rescinded it.

Following that ruling, Street heard testimony regarding the defense motion to suppress Azotea’s statements to investigators based on the defense’s assertion his 5th Amendment and 6th Amendment constitutional rights were violated.

During the portion of the hearing on June 2, a video of the interview of Azotea by Fraley and Carter County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief Investigator Mike Little was entered into the record.

On Wednesday, Fraley testified regarding the exchanges with Azotea when he first requested a lawyer and the later when he allegedly rescinded that request. After being told that he was under arrest, Fraley said Azotea initiated another conversation with him and Little where he stated “f*** the lawyer,” and then said he wanted to give a statement in exchange for his girlfriend being granted immunity from prosecution.

“Those three words were clear as day to me that he knew what he was doing and he was in control,” Fraley said.

Both the defense and the District Attorney’s Office will be submitting a written summary and argument regarding the motion to the court. Those arguments must be submitted by July 17, and Street said he would issue a ruling on whether or not the statements by Azotea to investigators will be suppressed on August 2.

Azotea is scheduled to stand trial in the case beginning on Sept. 11.