Guilty Verdict in Campaign Murder Trial

ByJason Strait

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

Byron “Low Tax” Looper, 35, was sentenced to life in prisonwithout parole by the same jury that convicted him in the death ofstate Sen. Tommy Burks, the clear favorite to win the 1998election.

The Burks family had asked prosecutors not to seek the deathpenalty.

Political Motive For MurderIn closing arguments today, prosecutor Tony Craighead saidLooper 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, whohad a reason to kill Tommy Burks? Byron Looper.”

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

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

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

Looper, who legally changed his middle name from Anthony to “LowTax”, was the Putnam County property assessor when he was chargedwith 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 awayfrom Burks’ farm in a black Audi the morning Burks was killed.

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

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

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

Unsuccessful Alibi

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

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

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

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

Defense attorney McCracken Poston told jurors that the Burksfamily and Crossville community suffered a horrible loss, butsympathy shouldn’t cloud their decision.

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

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

Five-Time Election LoserThe son of a school superintendent, Looper was a cadet at WestPoint, attended law school and served as an aide in the GeorgiaLegislature.

But his parents divorced when he was a boy, and his father diedin 1992. He has a son from an estranged girlfriend, butacknowledged the boy as his son only after being threatened with aDNA test and lawsuit.

He lost five elections in Tennessee and Georgia before finallybreaking through in 1996, when he changed his party affiliationfrom Democrat to Republican and was elected Putnam County propertyassessor.

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

Since his arrest, Looper, 35, has been confined to theCumberland County Jail. He successfully delayed his trial for morethan a year by filing several court motions and changing attorneyseight times.

Murfreesboro Judge Steve Daniel was appointed to hear the caseand the eight-woman, four-man jury was selected 160 miles away atBlountville.