published Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Slaying suspect Aaron Lawson acquitted in prior case

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    Aaron Dean Lawson, 32, is a suspect in the shooting deaths of Charles and Deborah Phillips in northern Bradley County. He has been indicted on two first-degree murder charges in Bradley County.

A Cleveland, Tenn., man awaiting trial on charges of ambushing and shooting his daughter's grandparents to death was found not guilty in a prior stabbing.

During a one-day trial Thursday, a Bradley County jury acquitted Aaron Lawson, 33, of aggravated assault.

To the surprise of prosecutors, Lawson took the stand, saying he first was attacked by Travis Millard in a bar fight in February 2011, said 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett. Prosecutors argued that Lawson stabbed Millard in the stomach first.

After two hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict late Thursday, Hatchett said.

Lawson's attorney, Randy Rogers, couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

Hatchett said the defeat wasn't a setback in the separate murder case against Lawson.

"We certainly took what he did to Travis Millard seriously," Hatchett said, "[but] the aggravated assault wasn't going to make a whole lot of difference [in the murder case]."

Lawson remains in jail charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the killing of Eddie and Debbie Phillips, who were gunned down in April 2011 in their driveway in Charleston, Tenn. The trial is set for September.

After the victims were found and a daylong manhunt, Lawson was found hiding at his aunt and uncle's car repair shop.

Prosecutors will not ask for the death penalty because Lawson didn't meet the requirements for that punishment under Tennessee law, Hatchett said.

Lawson's relatives said they believe he went to the Phillipses' home to try to talk with them after he was arrested on the stabbing charge and told he no longer could see his 11-year-old daughter.

Before then, Lawson was allowed to see his daughter on occasion but didn't have custody.

Lawson and the Phillipses' daughter, Priscilla Williams, had the child at a young age but never married. Over the years, Lawson gained partial custody of his daughter, then lost it as he continued to get in trouble with the law, court records show.

Lawson has a history of using methamphetamine and had become addicted to prescription pain pills after a doctor prescribed them for a back injury, his family said.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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