Defense counsel Randy Rogers gives his opening statement during the trial of Aaron Lawson on Tuesday at the Bradley County Justice Center.during the opening day of the trial at the Bradley County Justice Center. Lawson was found guilty Friday of two counts of first-degree murder.Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Aaron Dean Lawson was a clever killer with a great defense attorney, prosecutors say. He also had a gripping tale of fighting off three people bent on killing him -- including a possible hit man.
That wasn't enough, though, to stop Lawson from being sentenced Friday to life in prison.
After two hours of deliberation, a Bradley County jury around 7 p.m. found Lawson guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for gunning down his daughter's maternal grandparents, Charles "Eddie" and Deborah Phillips, on April 19, 2011, at their Charleston, Tenn., home.
"I'm glad that justice was served for this family," said county Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett, who prosecuted the case.
During deliberations, jurors came out once from behind closed doors to hear a recording of Lawson's testimony earlier on Friday.
At odds for years with his then 11-year-old daughter's grandparents, Lawson claimed that they attacked him when he went to their home to discuss his custody arrangements.
"I'm going to knock your head off, and if I can get to my truck, I've got something else for you," Lawson testified that Phillips threatened as he went for his gun. Lawson said he fought off both of the Phillipses -- and an unknown third man in his 60s.
Lawson's attorney, Randy Rogers, suggested that a white car sped off from the shooting scene that might have held a hit man, because $7,000 in cash and a $5,000 cashier's check were found in Deborah Phillips' purse.
"Maybe this fellow in the little white car was called over there to take care of Aaron," Rogers said.
Rogers argued against murder charges for Lawson saying that -- at worst -- his client should be convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
"You can find that it was self-defense," he suggested. Rogers also told jurors that Lawson, whom he said has mental problems, qualified for an insanity defense.
Hatchett, who made the final argument, dismissed the notion that Lawson was attacked.
"There was no fight," he said.
Hatchett said Lawson ambushed the couple and "shot them down in cold blood."
"There was no third person," Hatchett said, telling the jury that when Lawson took the stand Friday "he never said a word about a white car being in the driveway."
He credited Lawson's parents for turning in their son.
During the multiday trial, the prosecution played a phone call in which Lawson told his parents, "They wouldn't have nothing on me, if you all had just kept your mouth shut," Hatchett said.
After the jury's verdict, Hatchett said, "It was one of the smartest, most well-planned crimes I've ever seen. This was a very smart crime. If his parents didn't turn him in -- we don't get him."
The murder weapon was never found.
Hatchett described defense attorney Rogers -- who was retained, not an appointed public defender -- as "a great lawyer."
The jury also found Lawson guilty of unlawful possession of a handgun by a convicted felon. He is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced on that charge at 1 p.m. March 24. At that time Criminal Court Judge Carroll Ross, who presided over the trial, will review the sentencing reports and decide whether to give Lawson consecutive or concurrent 51-year terms of life with the possibility of parole.
Lawson didn't show any emotion when the jury announced its decision, though he cursed at the judge as bailiffs ushered him out.
The Phillipses' daughter, who had a daughter with Lawson, sat amidst a row of supporters. She hung her head and wept at the jury's decision. Afterward, she hugged Hatchett and left the courtroom quickly without comment to the media.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.