published Monday, February 27th, 2012

Attorney seeks to quash confession in Monroe County slaying

Jim Balloch/The News Sentinel
  • photo
    Jessica Kennedy looks on during a Thursday, Sept. 15 2011 court hearing in Madisonville, Tenn., where she is charged in the July 10, 2010 slaying of Monroe County Election Commission Chairman Jim Miller.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MADISONVILLE, Tenn. — A confession by Jessica Kennedy, charged with the murder and robbery of Monroe County Election Commission Chairman Jim Miller, is a classic “false confession” coerced from a suspect with mental health issues, her attorney says.

Lawyer John Eldridge has asked a judge to toss Kennedy’s confession. A hearing on that issue is scheduled for May 2.

Eldridge also has asked authorities for information regarding the history and whereabouts of a .22-caliber handgun, taken from a man who was arrested about a week before Miller’s death in July 2010. Eldridge told the News Sentinel that he does not believe that gun is the murder weapon, but he declined to say why he wants information about it.

Kennedy, 28, is charged with felony murder, aggravated robbery, arson and abuse of a corpse. Materials filed in the case so far do not reveal details of her confession. She remains in jail, awaiting a trial set for May 21. The state is seeking a no-parole life sentence.

Pretrial motions, pleadings, discovery requests and documents filed by Eldridge and the lead prosecutor, Assistant 10th District Attorney General Jim Stutts, reveal a difficult and complex investigation.

“We are aware of more than 250 investigative reports generated by the TBI [Tennessee Bureau of Investigation], and we have received most of them,” Eldridge said.

Stutts said in his filings that Eldridge eventually will be given all he is entitled to and nearly all of what he has asked for, even though some of his requests are based on “third-hand hearsay” that originated with another jail inmate. Some items Eldridge has asked for “do not exist,” Stutts stated.

“The motion to suppress [the confession] is key in this case,” Eldridge wrote. “Without [it], the state has little evidence to link her to the murder of Jim Miller ... the alleged confession is a false confession and was the result of coercion.”

Also known as Jessica Powers and Jessica Kennedy Powers, she has a record of minor drug offenses. She is the only person charged so far in the death of Miller, 60. The Sweetwater, Tenn., farmer and businessman was shot in the head. His body was stuffed in the trunk of his own car, which then was set on fire.

The case became more difficult for investigators with the death of Sean Michael Corn, 33, a cousin of Kennedy’s stepfather. Corn was found hanged in a wooded area about two months after Miller’s death. Many of Corn’s friends and family doubt he killed himself.

“If there is doubt that Mr. Corn actually committed suicide but was murdered, [that] would be exculpatory to Ms. Kennedy,” Eldridge wrote.

Eldridge asserts that investigators have relied too heavily on polygraph exams to clear suspects prematurely, including one whose test results were reported incorrectly in a TBI document.

He said one report by the TBI “states that Wallace ‘Boonie’ Stokes Jr., a prominent suspect in the case, was [tested] and exonerated,” but a further review of the test report indicates the results were merely “inconclusive.”

“On [Kennedy’s] cellphone, there should be a text [to her] from Boonie Stokes in reference to the murder of Jim Miller, which states: ‘I’ll never admit my part in it,’” Eldridge wrote.

Contact Jim Balloch at ballochj@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6315.

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