published Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Murder case dismissal sought; lawyers say evidence missing

Attorneys for four co-defendants asked a Criminal Court judge to dismiss murder charges against their clients Monday, saying a police lieutenant's order not to collect a cellphone would result in an unfair trial.

During a two-hour hearing before Judge Don Poole, attorneys Jonathan Turner, Jay Perry, Todd Hastey and Garth Best argued that because the phone was not collected during a Chattanooga police investigation into the June 29, 2010, death of Bernard Hughes, 46, their clients won't know if there was evidence that could have ruled them out as suspects in the home invasion shooting.

But prosecutors Neal Pinkston and Cameron Williams argued that nothing presented by the defense attorneys showed there was anything on the phone that gave police a reason to hold it.

On July 13, 2010, Chattanooga police investigator Michael Wenger got a call that officers had found a phone, believed to be Harold Butler's, at the home of Antonio Watkins.

When Wenger arrived, then-Lt. Edwin McPherson told him that U.S. marshals might want the phone and for him not to take it into evidence, Wenger testified Monday.

After Wenger checked with the federal agents and they told him they didn't need the phone, McPherson called Wenger's lieutenant supervisor, who then called Wenger's sergeant supervisor to tell Wenger not to collect the phone.

McPherson then told Wenger on the scene that he could inspect the phone and ask Watkins questions, but he couldn't take it, Wenger testified. Watkins told Wenger he'd bought the phone from Butler for two bags of marijuana.

McPherson, now a captain, testified Monday he didn't remember telling Wenger not to take the phone into evidence. Turner also asked McPherson what he did with information from his niece, an eyewitness to the Hughes shooting.

The captain said he passed along the information from his niece and other confidential sources to homicide investigators and did not interview her, to avoid a conflict of interest.

Hastey's client, John Simpson, 31, is the first scheduled for trial on first-degree murder charges on April 24. Best's client, Unjolee Moore, 25, is next on June 26. Perry's client, Butler, 31, is scheduled for July 17. A trial date for Turner's client, Steven Ballou, 32, has not been set.

All four co-defendants are in jail custody awaiting trial.

Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or tsouth@timesfreepress.com.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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