A 20-year-old Soddy-Daisy man will be in his 50s before he sees freedom again.
Keith Lee Stewart pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery in the 2012 shooting death of Casey Burgiss, 24. As part of his plea agreement he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Stewart did not actually admit that he killed Burgiss, but instead took what's known as a "best interest" plea: He admitted prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him at trial but denied he did the killing.
Had he gone to trial as scheduled next week, Stewart would have faced life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.
As Stewart entered his plea, his mother began to cry. Once he'd left the room, she wailed and was carried out of Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole's courtroom by family members.
Burgiss' father, David Burgiss, said that he is satisfied with the outcome.
"Justice was served and we feel sorry for the families that were involved," the father said. "We felt that 35 years ... he's got a fair time."
Prosecutor Cameron Williams said after the hearing the state had a strong case against Stewart, including incriminating statements Stewart made to police and to friends.
Investigators also found a .25-caliber pistol that matched the one likely used in the slaying at Stewart's home.
Burgiss, a father of three, disappeared on July 21, 2012. His mother, Karen Payne-Crawley, reported him missing a week later.
Stewart had told Soddy-Daisy police that Burgiss had been shot at Devil's Pocket, a cavelike sinkhole in the Soddy-Daisy area. But Stewart said someone else did it. Jason Doss and Lebron Lewis were named in Stewart's arrest report.
Williams said that neither Doss nor Lewis were implicated in the crime.
According to Doss, Stewart told him he lured Burgiss to Devil's Pocket by offering to sell him a quarter-pound of marijuana.
Instead, Stewart told Doss, he shot and robbed Burgiss, leaving his body in the sinkhole.
A medical examiner's report showed that Burgiss was shot once in the face and once in the back of the head.
Beverly Barbee, Stewart's sister, said after the hearing that the plea came as a shock to the family.
As of Monday, she said the family thought the case was going to trial.
Barbee said her brother didn't kill Burgess, but he won't say who did. And for that he'll go to prison for 35 years, she said.
Williams said the events are clear: "The defendant acted alone. He took him out to the Devil's Pocket and he shot and killed and robbed him."
Contact staff writer Todd South at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
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 ...