Witness statement could lead to mistrial in murder case

Published 8:26 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A murder trial for a Carter County man charged with killing and dismembering a couple in January 2015 got off to an unexpected start Tuesday and testimony ended for the day after a witness made a statement from the stand that could cause the case to end in a mistrial.

Eric Azotea, 46, formerly of the Pinecrest community, faced charges of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of abuse of a corpse, and one count of tampering with or fabricating evidence. The charges stem from an investigation into the 2015 deaths of Arthur Gibson and Amber Terrell. The couple’s dismembered remains were found at Azotea’s residence. The District Attorney’s office is seeking the death penalty against Azotea in the case.

To start the day on Tuesday, Judge Stacy Street swore the jury in for the case and District Attorney General Tony Clark read the indictment against Azotea to the jury. After Clark finished the reading of the indictment, Street asked Azotea how he pled to the charges.

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Attorney Gene Scott, who is one of the lawyers representing Azotea in the case, stood and announced that his client pleads not guilty to the two charges of first degree murder but that he was entering a guilty plea to the charge of tampering with evidence and the two counts of abuse of a corpse. Street said Azotea would be sentenced on those convictions following the conclusion of the trial.

Because of the plea by Azotea, the jury will now be considering only the two counts of first degree murder against Azotea.

The case took another unexpected turn after lunch when a witness made a statement during testimony that could lead to a mistrial in the case.

Members of the jury heard testimony from relatives of Gibson and Terrell and a pair of law enforcement officers, but it was the State’s seventh witness of the day whose testimony brought the court proceedings to a screeching halt on Tuesday.

The State called Jeremy Combs to the stand and asked him how he knew Azotea. Combs responded that he had done some work for Azotea’s in-laws and that Azotea had just gotten out of prison.

Scott quickly stood up and called an objection to the testimony, and Brooks held up his hand to direct Combs to stop talking.

Street sent the jury out of the room in order to handle the objection.

The reason Combs’ statement could lead to a mistrial in the case. If a defendant has previously been convicted of a crime that information is not admissible before a jury due to the potentially prejudicial affect it may have on their deliberations.

Street allowed time for Azotea’s attorneys — Scott, Smith, and Lesley Tiller — to confer with Clark and Brooks. Azotea’s attorneys also conferred with their client and his mother, while the District Attorney’s Office conferred with Gibson and Terrell’s family members.

After around an hour of conferences between the attorneys and parties for both sides, Street announced he was releasing the jury to return to their hotel for the day. Members of the jury are under sequester for the duration of the trial.

Street said in an effort to be fair and not to rush either side as they attempt to deal with the issue created by Combs’ statement, he would reconvene court at 8:30 on Wednesday morning outside the presence of the jury to hear from both the state and the defense on the issue. If there is a motion to be heard in the case, Street said he would hear it Wednesday morning before bringing the jury in.

“If we are to continue the trial, the jury will begin hearing testimony at 9 a.m.,” Street told the attorneys.

During his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks laid out a timeline showing when Gibson and Terrell went missing, when it was reported to police, when their car was found, and when investigators interviewed Azotea and other individuals.

Investigators developed Azotea as a suspect and obtained a search warrant for his residence. Two investigators interviewed Azotea at the Carter County Sheriff’s Office while others interviewed his live-in fianceé Kristen Jones at another location.

During that interview, Brooks said Azotea confessed in exchange for an immunity agreement for Jones to protect her from prosecution. According to Brooks, Azotea was adamant that Jones had nothing to do with the murders. In his confession, which Brooks said the jury would get to see on the video, Azotea claimed Gibson and Terrell came to his home to rob him, and he stabbed them. He also told investigators that he chopped up and burned their bodies.

“He even said he did research as to how to do that,” Brooks said.

But, Brooks told the jury he felt they would hear the true story in a recorded telephone conversation between Azotea and Jones after Azotea’s arrest while he was housed at the Carter County Detention Center. Brooks then played a portion of that conversation where Azotea can be heard saying “the only thing that’s going to burn me is shooting that b**** in the back.”

During the defense’s opening statement, defense attorney Dan Smith told the jury they must consider the facts and evidence in the case and said that the State “cannot exclude” that someone else could be responsible for the murders of Gibson and Terrell.

Smith pointed to the immunity agreement for Jones which he said protects her from any prosecution in the case, unlike his client.

“She’s not going to be sitting here,” Smith said as he pointed to the defense table. “She’s going to walk through that door in a pretty dress, or whatever, and testify because she was granted immunity.”

During his statement to the jury, Smith said Azotea was “covering for the mother of his child” with his confession.

“Who shot them? Who other than Eric Azotea was there,” Smith asked. “You are going to find that Eric Azotea did all that he did to cover for the mother of his child.”