published Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Twanna Blair's attorney says she can't be retried in 1999 Valentine's Day triple slaying

Twanna Blair, right, talks to her attorney, Lee Davis, in this photo from her 2009 trial in Bradley County.
Twanna Blair, right, talks to her attorney, Lee Davis, in this photo from her 2009 trial in Bradley County.
Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Motion to Dismiss
Motion to Dismiss
New Indictment
New Indictment

Though the right not to be tried twice for the same crime is a bedrock of constitutional law, prosecutors have re-indicted Twanna "Tart" Blair in the 1999 Valentine's Day triple murder five years after she was found not guilty in the case.

Her furious attorney has asked a judge to dismiss the indictment and punish prosecutors for what he calls "blatant, knowing and intentional disregard" of the law and Blair's civil rights.

"These are incredibly serious matters," said attorney Lee Davis.

"The district attorney is a constitutional officer. He has an obligation and a duty to carry out the law. This is a clear violation," Davis said.

He said Blair was indicted multiple times on murder and related charges before a judge found her innocent in 2009 and other charges were dismissed.

"Then here comes [10th Judicial District assistant prosecutor] Richard Fisher five years later, filing an indictment he knows to be illegal. I've got a major problem with that and I'm going to bring that to the trial court's attention. ... This is an intentional act by Mr. Fisher to damage, intimidate and terrorize Twanna Blair -- there is no excuse or justification under the law that would allow it."

Fisher, who said last week he had taken the case to the grand jury after some re-investigation, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Blair's indictment is the latest twist in a series of surprises in the case that began in the days after the 1999 slayings of Orienthal "O.J." Blair, Cayci Higgins and Dawn Rogers shocked the community.

The three victims were bound and shot, execution-style, the day after Twanna and O.J., who were cousins, had a fight with Michael "Money" Younger and Maurice Johnson at a Sweetwater party.

Twanna Blair was bound and shot too, but survived, freed her bound hands and called 911.

Blair first was considered a victim, then a suspect in a case where one suspect was convicted, one is seeking a new trial and one was found innocent, all on the same evidence.

Blair and the other original suspect, Younger, have already been tried once.

Blair's first trial in 2010 ended with a hung jury and Younger's, in the same year, in a mistrial. Later that year, District Attorney Steve Bebb dismissed charges against Younger "without prejudice," meaning they could be reinstated in the future.

Only co-defendant Johnson was convicted. He is nearly five years into a life sentence for three counts of first-degree murder. But he is seeking a new trial, claiming his attorneys did a poor job defending him, and has won the right to new attorneys and a new judge.

The new, 12-count indictment against Blair and Younger was handed up in March.

Younger was arraigned April 7 on three counts each of conspiracy and first-degree murder and one count of especially aggravated robbery.

Younger's appointed attorney, Susan Shipley, said Thursday she has just begun looking into her client's case.

"I'm new to the case, but there are a number of very complicated issues we're going to be getting to work on very soon," said Shipley, whose practice is in Knoxville.

The charges against Blair include three counts each of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and facilitation of first-degree murder, and one count of facilitating aggravated robbery.

She was scheduled for arraignment April 25 but the hearing was canceled and has not been rescheduled, court officials said.

This is actually her fourth indictment in the killings.

Blair was indicted three times on different theories of the case before she finally went to trial in October 2009.

Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy, saying the prosecution had not proved Blair was in any way involved in the crimes, granted acquittal on a charge of especially aggravated robbery and three counts each of first-degree murder and the lesser included offense of second-degree murder. She declared a mistrial on three counts of facilitation to commit murder during the course of aggravated robbery.

Davis said the DA's office agreed to dismiss a remaining perjury count in return for Blair dropping any appeal. One other count of attempted aggravated robbery was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

Having been found innocent, she can't be retried, he said.

He said the new case is rife with complicated issues, including a question about who can actually represent the state in this case.

Bebb recused himself in a motion filed Tuesday, claiming conflicts with Reedy, with Brumley and within the 10th Judicial District DA's office.

He asked the judge to name Fisher, who handled the first round of trials, as a special prosecutor for the case. He said Fisher had resigned his position as part-time assistant DA so he would not have a conflict like the rest of the office does.

Davis called Bebb's motion "ludicrous."

"If Bebb has a conflict, he never should have filed the illegal indictment," Davis said. "It's disingenuous at best and it'll be the basis of an ethics complaint."

Since Fisher has resigned, "he can't represent the state on the illegal indictment unless he's appointed by the judge," Davis said.

And besides, the DA has no authority to name a pro tem prosecutor, he said -- that power belongs to the judge.

"There's multiple levels of ethical problems in one document," he added.

Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who took over the case after Reedy recused herself, will now have to untangle the conflicts.

Davis said a hearing date will be set soon on the various motions.

Last month, Blair pleaded guilty to unrelated federal drug charges and agreed to serve 10 years in federal prison.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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