published Saturday, June 29th, 2013

Byron Looper's family seeks independent autopsy after 'heart event' death report

  • photo
    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.

A preliminary autopsy report reveals Byron "Low Tax" Looper died after a "heart event," but his family is seeking an independent autopsy.

After state officials released Looper's body Friday afternoon, his former attorney, McCracken Poston, said Looper's family has taken the body to Georgia for a second autopsy.

"There are so many stories. I believe that an independent autopsy is justified," Poston said.

Looper, a notorious figure in Tennessee politics, was found dead in his East Tennessee prison cell Wednesday. He was serving a life sentence for assassinating his political opponent, Sen. Tommy Burks, 15 years ago. Looper legally changed his middle name to "Low Tax" during one of his unsuccessful runs for office.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Kristin Helm said the autopsy report indicted Looper had a "heart event," but she wouldn't say whether agents have ruled out foul play.

"TBI will await the final autopsy before concluding the death investigation and turning it over to the district attorney general," she said Friday afternoon.

A prison incident report shows Looper assaulted a pregnant female counselor and had to be restrained nearly two hours before he was found dead in his prison cell.

Poston said Looper's family was told a different story.

He said an assistant warden at the Morgan County Correctional Complex told a Looper family member that Looper touched the arm of a female counselor and that he was taken to solitary confinement, where a nurse went to him an hour later to address a head wound he had received.

Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield asked the TBI to investigate Looper's death.

State officials then took the news to the Burks family.

Kim Blaylock, Tommy Burks' daughter, said officials came to her Putnam County office. They were looking for her mother, state Sen. Charlotte Burks, who beat Looper for her late husband's Senate seat in 1998 and has served since.

Tommy Burks, a popular lawmaker who served in the Tennessee Legislature for 28 years, was found shot to death in his truck, and Looper was convicted of first-degree murder.

"We've gotten a lot of hugs the last couple days and words of encouragement," Blaylock said. "People saying: 'You guys can finally have some closure.'"

Poston said Looper's mother and brother had to find out about their son and brother's death through news reports.

"This is shameful," Poston said. "We must demand of our government the humane treatment of prisoners, regardless of their unpopularity."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6650.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

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 ...

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