Guilty Verdict in Campaign Murder Trial

C R O S S V I L L E, Tenn., Aug. 23, 2000 -- A man prosecutors said was consumed by a thirst for political power was found guilty today in the shooting death of his election opponent, a popular state senator.

Byron “Low Tax” Looper, 35, was sentenced to life in prison without parole by the same jury that convicted him in the death of state Sen. Tommy Burks, the clear favorite to win the 1998 election.

The Burks family had asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty.

Political Motive For Murder In closing arguments today, prosecutor Tony Craighead said Looper killed Burks because he wanted his power and position.

“He had a motive, a method to win this election with a Smith & Wesson,” Craighead said. “Of all the people in all the world, who had a reason to kill Tommy Burks? Byron Looper.”

Burks, 58, was shot once in the head at his hog and tobacco farm on Oct. 19, 1998. He was sitting in pickup truck on a gravel road near a pumpkin patch where he planned to take schoolchildren on a hayride.

District Attorney Bill Gibson said there was no doubt Looper was the killer.

“He didn’t leave DNA at the scene. He left a bullet at the scene. He left tire tracks at the scene. He left an impression of who he was on a young man (farmhand Wesley Rex) at the scene,” he said.

Looper, who legally changed his middle name from Anthony to “Low Tax”, was the Putnam County property assessor when he was charged with Burks’ murder.

‘I Busted A Cap In That Dude’ Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of Rex and Joe Bond, a high school friend of Looper’s, to prove Looper’s guilt.

Rex, who found Burks’ body, said he saw Looper speeding away from Burks’ farm in a black Audi the morning Burks was killed.

Joe Bond, a Marine sergeant, said Looper showed up at his Hot Springs, Ark., home the night of Burks’ death and confessed to the killing.

“He said, ‘I did it, man, I did it. I killed that dude,’” Bond testified. Bond said he asked who Looper had killed.

“He said, ‘That guy I was running against. I busted a cap in that dude’s head.’”

Unsuccessful Alibi

Defense attorneys relied on the testimony of Looper’s mother and her neighbors to try to prove Looper’s innocence.

Those witnesses said Looper was at his mother’s home at Flowery Branch, Ga., the morning Burks was killed.

“If my son did something he should not do, I would be the first to tell you. I have children. I have grandchildren. And, you don’t tell them what to do, you set an example for them,” testified Reba Looper, his mother.

They also discounted Bond’s testimony as revenge for Looper making advances toward Bond’s teenage girlfriend, now wife.

Defense attorney McCracken Poston told jurors that the Burks family and Crossville community suffered a horrible loss, but sympathy shouldn’t cloud their decision.

“It doesn’t allow you to see the reasonable doubt, so please brush it aside,” he said.

Friends and acquaintances described the clean-cut, bespectacled Looper as someone who struggled personally and professionally.

Five-Time Election Loser The son of a school superintendent, Looper was a cadet at West Point, attended law school and served as an aide in the Georgia Legislature.

But his parents divorced when he was a boy, and his father died in 1992. He has a son from an estranged girlfriend, but acknowledged the boy as his son only after being threatened with a DNA test and lawsuit.

He lost five elections in Tennessee and Georgia before finally breaking through in 1996, when he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and was elected Putnam County property assessor.

He was later indicted on 14 counts charging him with theft and misusing his office. Those charges are pending.

Since his arrest, Looper, 35, has been confined to the Cumberland County Jail. He successfully delayed his trial for more than a year by filing several court motions and changing attorneys eight times.

Murfreesboro Judge Steve Daniel was appointed to hear the case and the eight-woman, four-man jury was selected 160 miles away at Blountville.