Thomas McConnell, 65, is charged with aggravated sexual battery after he reportedly fondled a 5-year-old girl while sitting at a restaurant Sunday. Contributed photo
A cellphone video played Monday in Hamilton County Sessions Court drew two very different reactions.
Prosecutor Charlie Minor believes the video shows evidence of aggravated sexual battery involving Thomas C. McConnell and his 5-year-old granddaughter. McConnell is the head of Hamilton County Schools' Junior Reserve Officer Training program.
The video was recorded on an iPhone by Tammye Cagle on March 4 at the Chato Brassiere restaurant at 200 Manufacturers Road. Minor used the video and interviews with the defendant and the child as the foundation of his case against McConnell.
But McConnell's attorney found Minor's argument lacking.
"I'm very disappointed that the state is choosing to go forward on this when it's a mistake in judgment," said Lee Davis, also a former prosecutor. "I saw nothing that would lead me to believe that a crime had occurred or was occurring."
Outside court, Minor declined to comment on a pending case.
In court, the prosecutor also played an audio recording of Chattanooga police Detective Jerome Halbert's interview with McConnell at 8 p.m. the day of the alleged incident.
In the interview, Halbert said the girl told a Child Advocacy Center interviewer that she was afraid anything she said could make her grandfather lose his job.
During the hearing, Davis attacked the questioning methods of detectives.
"They're trying to dirty up this man by the questions the detectives asked," Davis said.
"We're not trying to dirty up anyone," Minor replied. "We're trying to get at the truth."
Sessions Court Judge Ronald Durby sent the case to the grand jury.
Pending results of the charge, McConnell has been suspended from his duties as JROTC head and as a deacon at the St. Jude Catholic Church. He is free on bond and is under a temporary restriction from contact with his granddaughter.
A crowd of at least 30 McConnell supporters filled the courtroom during the nearly two-hour hearing, including two men in priest robes and six men in military uniform.
Davis said that McConnell's family, including his wife and daughter, mother of the 5-year-old, support his client. McConnell is a retired U.S. Army colonel and has worked with the local JROTC program for 18 years.
During the Sunday brunch in which the video-recording took place, McConnell was sitting with his wife, daughter and a priest.
Cagle testified in the hearing that she saw McConnell touching the girl in an "inappropriate" way for about 10 minutes before she began recording with her iPhone.
Davis said that, other than Cagle's accusation, there has been "no allegation nor any proof offered that this child has been sexually violated in any way at any time by anybody."
The defense attorney also brought up a Facebook group Cagle had "liked" called "Create the Death Sentence to Child Abusers, Child Molesters and Child Killers," saying it might show preconceptions Cagle had when she saw McConnell with his granddaughter.
Cagle's iPhone video shows the girl sitting on McConnell's left leg as he rubs his open hand up and down the outside of her left thigh.
At two points during the six-minute recording, the girl pushes McConnell's hand away. At one point, his hand rests across her upper thigh. At the end of the recording, he reaches his hand inside the back of the girl's shirt, rubbing her back.
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 ...