When Byron Looper changed his middle name to “Low Tax” during a campaign for public office, observers thought he would do anything to gain political power.
But when his rival — incumbent Tennessee Sen. Tommy Burks — was gunned down during their campaign for Burks’ Senate seat two years ago, Looper’s ambition allegedly became a motive for murder.
Today, as opening statements began in his murder trial, Looper was not seeking to regain a political position, but rather to vacate the prison seat he had held since October 1998. Prosecutors say that Looper, who was the property assessor in Tennessee’s Putnam County at the time of the killing, was so determined to attain political power that decided to unseat Burks with a “bullet instead of a ballot.”
“Byron Looper is a man obsessed with the burning desire for power and public office,” district attorney Bill Gibson told jurors today. “He is also a man who knew he didn’t have a chance at beating Tommy Burks.”
Burks was found dead in his pickup truck on his farm on Oct. 19, 1998. A single gunshot wound to the head killed him instantly. Investigators almost immediately suspected Looper, who disappeared the day of the shooting. He had been last seen at his mother’s home in north Georgia the day before Burks’ death. Looper resurfaced at his home in Cookeville, Tenn., four days later, where he surrendered to police without resistance. He even offered the arresting officers sodas before being taken into custody.
Knows How To Lose An Election Looper has remained in jail since his arrest and has maintained his innocence. With his attorney, McCracken Poston, he has insisted that he would have never resorted to murder to win an election.
In his opening statement today, Poston told the court that Looper had no reason to kill Burks because he knew Burks’ widow would get the seat if Burks died. And that’s what happened: after her husband’s slaying, Charlotte Burks overwhelmingly defeated Looper for his husband’s vacant seat as a write-in candidate that November. Alluding to Looper’s two failed bids for public office before being elected property assessor in 1996, Poston stressed that his client knew how to handle losing an election and was not as obsessed with and desperate for power as prosecutors claim.
“The evidence is going to show that Byron Looper knows how to win an election. The evidence also is going to show that he knows how to lose one and move on,” Poston said. “Mr. Looper’s weapon has always been words, and that’s never changed.”
At the time of his death, Burks, 58, had served in the state Legislature for 28 years and never missed a day of work. With his wife Charlotte, he also oversaw a tobacco and hog farm in Cumberland County.
Looper, 35, seemed to groom his life for a run at political office. He had his middle name legally changed to “Low Tax” during a previous campaign for public office. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served as an aide in the Georgia Legislature. But his desire to serve in public office was thwarted twice before he was elected Putnam County property assessor in 1996.
High Gamble on Low Tax Though the suspicion against Looper in Burks’ killing is high, prosecutors only have circumstantial evidence against him. The farm employee who discovered Burks’ body, Wesley Rex, testified today that he is “100 percent certain” that Looper drove away from Burks’ truck after he, Rex, heard the gun blast that killed the senator. Rex said he heard a single “pop” before seeing a black car pull away from Burks’ truck and seeing Burks slump in his seat. Rex saw a picture of Looper on a television report the next day and recognized him as the driver of the black vehicle, he said.
In addition, a former high school friend of Looper’s, Joe Bond is expected to tell jurors that the defendant confessed to the killing. During a pretrial hearing, Bond, a U.S. Marines arms expert, testified that Looper had visited him several times during the summer before Burks’ death and had asked him several questions about firearms. Looper’s last visit to Bond was on the night of the killing, Bond said. According to Bond, Looper told him, “I killed that dude — the guy I was running against.”
Prosecutors also may have the murder weapon. Last year, a garbage crew found a 9mm pistol in weeds near an interstate exit ramp near Cookeville, Looper’s residence. Investigators believe the gun was used on Burks.
Still, there is a gag order in the case, and both the prosecution and the defense have refused to talk about their legal strategies.
Pretrial Legal Dueling In the nearly two years since the killing, Looper’s trial has been delayed several times with defense motions seeking a new judge and change of venue. Looper also has changed attorneys eight times. Due to publicity surrounding the case, 10 men and six women from the neighboring county of Blountville, which is 160 miles east of Crossville, were seated over the weekend after four days of questioning. Criminal Court Judge Steve Daniel of Murfreesboro was appointed to oversee the trial, which is expected to last three weeks.
At the request of the Burks family, prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty. If convicted of first-degree murder, Looper faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.