published Friday, January 17th, 2014

Father testifies in Lawson trial

Judge Carroll Ross, right, talks with Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett before opening statements are made in the trial of Aaron Lawson Tuesday at the Bradley County Justice Center.
Judge Carroll Ross, right, talks with Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett before opening statements are made in the trial of Aaron Lawson Tuesday at the Bradley County Justice Center.
Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Aaron Lawson's father testified Thursday night that his son called him from the home of Eddie and Debbie Phillips the day they were killed, April 19, 2011.

Aaron Lawson is on trial on two counts of first-degree murder and being a felon in possession of a weapon stemming from the Phillipses' slayings.

"[Aaron Lawson] said, 'I'm pulling into the driveway at Eddie's,'" Dean Lawson testified under questioning by his son's defense lawyer, Randy Rogers, in Bradley County Circuit Court.

Dean Lawson testified he told his son to leave.

"He said, 'Here they stand now in the driveway, Daddy,'" Dean Lawson testified. "Then he hung up."

Dean Lawson left his job at Bowater in Calhoun, Tenn., and headed for his own home. When he got there, his son was there, he testified.

Dean Lawson said his son, visibly upset, told him, "'They're gone.' He said, 'Check my text messages and see what they're doing to me.'"

His son told him, "Eddie said, 'You come here to get your [behind] whipped again?'" Dean Lawson testified. "He [Aaron] said Debbie reached in her bag."

Dean Lawson said his son went inside his parents' home and washed his hands, jumped back in his vehicle and drove away.

Rogers called witnesses to talk about Aaron Lawson's mental health, whether he had a history of sudden violence and whether he was sometimes dangerously violent. He also asked about the custody battle over Lawson's then 11-year-old daughter and how Lawson reacted when things didn't go well.

Rogers told Circuit Court Judge Carroll Ross outside the jury's hearing that his client's mental condition could support a decision that Lawson was insane or a lesser charge than premeditated murder.

The family's pastor told jurors that Aaron Lawson's capacity to become violent was like "Jekyll and Hyde."

Gum Springs Baptist Church pastor James David Cross, also a chaplain for the Cleveland Police Department, said he'd known Lawson and his parents, Dean and Janell, for seven to nine years. He'd twice seen Aaron become violent, he said: once in the church parking lot and another time when Aaron tried to choke his brother, Heath.

Dean and Janell Lawson called Cross after Aaron Lawson appeared at their home. First they told the pastor Aaron was "very upset." As he headed for their home, they called back to warn him away: "Don't stop. Aaron's back."

Cross said he called 911 to report the situation and then got another call from the Lawsons.

"Janell calls me and said, 'Aaron has shot the Phillipses. You need to get them some help,'" Cross told jurors. "I immediately called 911."

When Janell Lawson called back to say Aaron Lawson had left their home, Cross tried to console the shattered and scared parents.

Cross testified that he relayed as much information as he could to police over the next 24 hours. Aaron Lawson was found and arrested at his uncle's business in Hamilton County.

Cross said he was concerned about Lawson's mental health, saying Lawson was "two different people" when his temper flared.

Under cross-examination by Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett, Cross testified that he believed people had "personal responsibility" for their actions.

The defense side began after the state's case ended around 3:30 p.m. with Dr. Christopher Lockmuller, the medical examiner for Knox and Anderson counties, who performed the autopsies.

The medical examiner testified that both victims suffered three gunshot wounds and spinal injuries that would have dropped them in their tracks: Eddie Phillips in his back and Debbie Phillips at the neck.

Toxicology reports showed that Eddie Phillips had a blood-alcohol content of 0.03 and nothing else in his blood, while Debbie Phillips had a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 and nothing else in her blood. The legal limit for driving under the influence is 0.08.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com.

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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