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In this Monday, Nov., 23, 1998, file photo, Byron Looper talks to his attorney Lionel Barrett in court during Looper's murder trial in Crossvile, Tenn. State correctional officials say Looper, a Tennessee inmate serving a life sentence for the murder of state Sen. Tommy Burks, was found dead in his cell in the Morgan County Correctional Complex, Wednnesday, June 26, 2013.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
About two hours before Byron "Low Tax" Looper was found dead in a prison cell Wednesday morning, he reportedly assaulted a pregnant female counselor.
An incident report from the Morgan County Correctional Complex reveals what happened in the hours before the death of Looper, who was serving a life sentence in East Tennessee for assassinating his political opponent, Sen. Tommy Burks, in 1998.
The incident report accuses Looper of hitting the counselor, who was 34 weeks pregnant, in the head about 8:55 a.m. Wednesday. Guards responded to the assault and restrained Looper, the report states, "with the least amount of force necessary."
The Tennessee Department of Correction has called in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to probe the 48-year-old Looper's death and on Thursday referred all questions to that agency.
"We're looking at all events leading up to his death," TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said.
Looper was found dead in his cell at 11:10 a.m., authorities said.
The report states that earlier that morning Looper was standing nearby when his counselor and a prison unit manager were talking about a request he had made. That's when, authorities say, he held his hands out and hit the counselor on both sides of her head, knocking off her glasses.
The report doesn't specify the request Looper made, but two sources said Looper recently had been told he was going to be placed back in the prison's general population, and he didn't want that because he was afraid of being hurt.
Looper, who legally changed his middle name to "Low Tax," ran against Burks, a popular Democrat, in 1998.
Burks, who had held office in Tennessee for 28 years, was found slumped over in his truck on his farm in Monterey on Oct. 19, 1998, shot near his left eye. Looper was charged in the crime and convicted of first-degree murder.
At the time of his trial, then-13th Judicial District Attorney Bill Gibson said Looper was a man "obsessed with the burning desire for power and public office."
Even after his conviction, Looper maintained his innocence.
Looper's family has declined to talk about his death. But his former attorney, McCracken Poston, said Looper was a colorful character in both Georgia and Tennessee politics.
"The fact that Byron was an unusual, if often difficult, client is well documented," Poston said in a prepared statement. "His family in Georgia deserves to mourn their loss in peace."
In Georgia, Looper had attempted to jump-start his political career in the Democratic Party. Having no success, he moved to Tennessee as a Republican, where he won his only election in 1996 to become Putnam County's property assessor. While in office, he racked up 14 counts of official misconduct, theft of services and official oppression for theft, misuse of county property and misuse of county employees, records show.
After being jailed on the murder charge in Burks' death, Looper fired his deputy tax assessor, leaving the office without anyone in charge. He continued to try to operate that office until the state stepped in and removed him.
Also from jail, Looper advertised his campaign for state Senate through a local radio station.
He was defeated by a landslide by Burks' widow, Charlotte, who ran as a write-in candidate for her husband's seat. Charlotte Burks is still in office.
In prison, Looper, who had started law school before his arrest, tried to sue a television news station and later the Tennessee Department of Correction for $47 million, records show.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.
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 ...