published Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Daughter testifies in Lawson murder trial

Aaron Lawson, right, and Travis Herd listen to opening statements Tuesday in the first day of Lawson's trial at the Bradley County Justice Center. Lawson is accused in the April 2011 slayings of his daughter's grandparents.
Aaron Lawson, right, and Travis Herd listen to opening statements Tuesday in the first day of Lawson's trial 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.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — On the second day of testimony in the double-homicide trial of Aaron Dean Lawson, his daughter and her mother took the stand and prosecutors introduced text and cellphone records among the three, his parents and the victims.

Lawson is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and possession of a weapon by a convicted felon in the shooting deaths of Eddie and Debbie Phillips, 58 and 54 respectively, at their home near Charleston, Tenn. They were shot three times each with a 9 mm pistol.

Late Wednesday, Lawson's now 14-year-old daughter testified that the day of the slayings on April 19, 2011, she wanted to go to her aunt's home for an Easter egg hunt that Sunday.

The texts introduced into evidence earlier Wednesday show Lawson was increasingly agitated and the girl's mother, Priscilla Phillips, engaged in a back-and-forth dispute with him the day of the shootings.

The teen, who sniffled and fidgeted during her time on the stand, testified that she didn't feel "put in the middle" by the two sides of her family.

Lawson that day insisted on having visitation with his daughter that weekend, according to the texts.

The teen testified she could tell when her father should be on what she called his "pain medication." Defense attorney Randy Rogers said the medicine treated his bipolar disorder.

She testified that her grandparents on both sides sometimes tried to talk about ongoing disputes between Lawson and Priscilla Phillips, but that didn't always go well.

She remembered seeing guns drawn in prior years between the Phillipses and Aaron Dean Lawson's parents, Dean and Janell Lawson, but she couldn't remember who held them. Priscilla Phillips testified that her mother, Debbie Phillips, once had pulled a gun on a Lawson family member.

Priscilla Phillips testified about the tumultuous relationship she had with Aaron Lawson. They started dating when she was a 15-year-old in high school. Aaron Lawson was only a year or so older. They were never married.

The court day began with a recording from July 17, 2011, between Lawson and his father from the Bradley County Jail, just after he had met with the public defender, who was representing him at the time.

Lawson complained about what other family members said and the fact that his mother talked to investigators.

"They ain't got nothing coming from my mouth," he said in another exchange.

Lawson also commented on the discovery of the magazine to the 9 mm pistol police believe to be the murder weapon, which was found in his parents' home, and 36 live 9 mm rounds police recovered on the side of Hooper Gap Road.

That pistol was never recovered but police found another weapon in a car at his uncle's business the day after the slaying. That gun had his fingerprints on its magazine, according to testimony.

"They're looking for a 9 mm and they found a .40-caliber," Lawson said to his father. He called the police statements from family members, including his mother, "damaging."

There was also testimony from state witnesses about more than a dozen calls the day of the shootings from Aaron Lawson's cellphone, and about the bullets, shell casings found and blood evidence at the scene on Leatha Lane.

According to testimony under direct and cross-examination, there was unidentified blood from "an unknown male" found on Aaron Lawson's clothing but the expert witness said that sample was believed to be older than the samples that matched Debbie Phillips' DNA.

The brand name of the 9 mm bullets found on Hooper Gap Road and in the magazine at the elder Lawsons' home didn't match the 9 mm spent shell casings found at the Phillipses' home, according to testimony.

Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett is prosecuting the case, which continues today in Bradley County Criminal Court.

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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