A Chattanooga man accused of killing a local pastor pleaded not guilty to all charges on Friday, despite admitting a pivotal role in the crime during jailhouse interviews with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Antonio Henry, 26, listened via video feed as his attorney, Daniel Ripper, entered a not guilty plea on charges of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery in connection with the Rev. David Strong’s death last October.
It was Henry’s first public appearance since a preliminary hearing in November. He slumped against walls inside Hamilton County Jail and only spoke when spoken to.
“I’ll be by to see you soon, OK man?” Ripper said.
“All right,” Henry replied.
None of Henry’s family members attended Friday’s hearing.
A person convicted of first-degree murder can be sentenced to death or imprisoned for life with or without possibility of parole, according to state law. Prosecutors have not filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Henry.
Henry’s plea allows Ripper to study the state’s evidence.
Separately Friday, Henry’s teenage cousin, Brendan Barnes, entered no plea on identical charges because of an unexpected change in counsel. The Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office has requested time to meet with Barnes and review the charges against him.
Last month, Barnes was deemed mentally competent to stand trial as an adult.
Like Henry, Barnes’ courtroom visit Friday was handled over video from the jail. It also marked the first time he has spoken during any of his three court hearings.
Addressing basic questions from Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole, the teenager answered in a deep baritone, sounding much older than his 16 years.
When told “That’s all we need to do today,” Barnes lingered a few seconds longer, staring into a monitor with a wide view of the courtroom.
“Yes, sir,” Barnes said.
At the end of her son’s hearing, Carol Barnes said she was advised against talking to the media.
Five days after police found Strong’s body, Henry told the Times Free Press that he beat the pastor with a wooden stick as Barnes “went crazy” and stabbed Strong, who was pastor of St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chattanooga.
During the interviews, Henry said he “snapped” when Strong asked Henry to masturbate in front of him.
Barnes told investigators a different story, claiming the pair traveled to “rob and possibly kill” Strong at his Glenwood home, according to police testimony. Police said Barnes never mentioned sex and characterized himself as Henry’s unwilling follower.
A police investigator testified in a court hearing last month that Barnes told police that Henry threatened him with a knife, compelling Barnes to hit Strong “some more times” to prove himself.
An autopsy showed blunt force to Strong’s head and 29 stab wounds all over his body, some of which went 5 inches deep. Alcohol and THC — marijuana’s key ingredient — were found in the pastor’s system, according to a toxicology report.
Henry told the Times Free Press the trio smoked marijuana and ate pizza before the killing. Police have not speculated on why Henry and Barnes’ visit became a prolonged attack on the pastor.