Campaign Murder Trial Begins

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.

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