published Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Trial begins in Bradley County, Tenn., double slaying

Defense counsel Randy Rogers, Travis Herd and Aaron Lawson, from left, wait before opening statements in the opening day of Lawson's trial Tuesday at the Bradley County Justice Center. Lawson is accused in the April 2011 slayings of his daughter's grandparents.
Defense counsel Randy Rogers, Travis Herd and Aaron Lawson, from left, wait before opening statements in the opening day of Lawson's trial Tuesday at the Bradley County Justice Center. Lawson is accused in the April 2011 slayings of his daughter's grandparents.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

In the opening salvos in the double-homicide trial of Aaron Dean Lawson, who is accused of gunning down the grandparents of his then-11-year-old daughter in their yard, defense counsel presented the possibility that another person was there and involved, while prosecutors painted the shootings as an ambush.

Lawson, 32 at the time of his arrest on April 20, 2011, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and possession of a weapon by a convicted felon in the shooting deaths of Charles "Eddie" and Deborah Phillips.

Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett told jurors in his opening statement that the Phillips couple, Eddie, 58, and Debbie, 54, had been to the O'Charley's restaurant in Cleveland earlier on the evening of April 19, then made their way home after stopping by the Fish Creek Market for some beer. They arrived home to drop the beer off in a swing behind the house.

Hatchett said Lawson was waiting.

Lawson "comes up behind them and opens fire," Hatchett said.

Shell casings from a 9 mm semi-automatic weapon were found by authorities very near the bodies, each which had been shot three times, he said.

Lawson then fled and headed toward his parents' home, where he left a loaded, high-capacity magazine for a 9 mm handgun and then headed to his uncle's business on Highway 58 in Hamilton County.

Lawson was taken into custody there the next day by Hamilton County authorities after an all-night manhunt. An empty .40-caliber pistol was seized from a car there, but no 9 mm weapon was found. Pieces of a weapon police believe is the murder weapon were found in later searches along Hooper Gap Road.

Hatchett said cellphone text messages show Lawson had been exchanging messages with his daughter, who wanted to go to an Easter egg hunt, and her mother.

Some of the text exchanges were heated and had triggered an angry Lawson to go to the Phillips home on Leatha Lane in Charleston, Tenn., he said.

In the defense's opening argument, Athens lawyer Randy Rogers targeted a statement from one neighbor who said she heard a noise that sounded like someone hammering metal and looked outside to see what she thought was a "white, smaller vehicle" speeding down the couple's driveway.

Lawson was driving a dark Ford Explorer SUV.

Rogers said Lawson was present when the fatal shots were fired, but he said the heated exchange was lengthier, could have involved a violent physical struggle and that there had been guns brandished during previous encounters between the Lawson and the Phillips families that escalated emotions that night.

A yearslong custody and visitation battle over the defendant's daughter created strong animosity between Lawson and the Phillips family, he said. Lawson and his daughter's mother were never married.

Rogers said police records show Debbie Phillips had a weapon in her purse, found near her body at the scene, that contained two bullets. Both victims had handgun carry permits, Rogers told jurors.

There was no testimony that Debbie Phillips' weapon had been fired or removed from the purse.

Rogers said that "at best" the state had a case for voluntary manslaughter and that the case was potentially one of self-defense.

"Two people know what happened that day," Rogers told jurors, "Aaron Lawson and the man in the small, white car."

In testimony from Bradley County Sheriff's Office Detective Kevin White, the officer said under direct examination by Hatchett that parts of a 9 mm handgun were found on Hooper Gap Road during searches in the days that followed the crime along the most direct route from Lawson's parent's home to his uncle's business.

White testified that 36 live rounds of 9 mm ammunition were found by a resident in the same area during another search.

White testified that only the one neighbor gave a statement about another vehicle in the area, and he called the description of that vehicle "vague."

White also testified under cross examination by Rogers that the bullets found in searches matched the brand and caliber of the weapon used in the killings, but he also said there was nothing unusual about either.

Under re-direct examination by Hatchett, White testified that there were no other witness statements taken by a team of officers who canvassed the neighborhood that said anything about another vehicle.

He also testified that witnesses often are uncertain about automobiles' makes or models. A boot print found at the scene -- the victims and Lawson all were wearing flip flops -- belonged to one of the officers who responded to the scene, White testified.

The trial is to resume this morning.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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