published Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Blair in court for 1999 murders: Her attorney wants charges dismissed

Twanna Blair sits before Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood in Bradley County Criminal Court on Thursday after being arraigned on three counts each of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and facilitation of felony murder and one count of facilitation of especially aggravated robbery in a 15-year-old case.
Twanna Blair sits before Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood in Bradley County Criminal Court on Thursday after being arraigned on three counts each of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and facilitation of felony murder and one count of facilitation of especially aggravated robbery in a 15-year-old case.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Valentine's Day slaying defendant Twanna Blair can be tried on charges that were lodged in past years but never brought before a jury, a prosecutor argued Thursday.

But her attorney called a new indictment against her "illegal" and "unethical" and asked a judge to summarily dismiss three counts each of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and facilitation of felony murder and one count of facilitation of especially aggravated robbery.

Blair pleaded not guilty at her arraignment Thursday in Bradley County Criminal Court in the 15-year-old case.

The crime was the execution-style killings of Orienthal "O.J." Blair, Cayci Higgins and Dawn Rogers at O.J.'s cousin Twanna Blair's apartment on Feb. 13, 1999. Prosecutors said Maurice Johnson and Michael "Money" Younger kicked down the door, bound the victims and shot them in retaliation for an earlier incident in which O.J. Blair beat up Johnson and stole his money.

Johnson was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence.

Younger's first trial ended in a mistrial. He was re-indicted in March along with Blair and has had an attorney appointed for him.

Twanna Blair, who also was shot, initially was considered a victim but prosecutors decided she was an accomplice and charged her along with Johnson and Younger.

She was indicted three times on three different theories of the case before she finally was tried in September 2009 on one count of especially aggravated robbery and three counts of felony murder. The jury deadlocked and Judge Amy Reedy granted acquittals on those charges plus a lesser included charge of second-degree murder.

Reedy directed a mistrial on facilitation of felony murder. While Blair's appeal on that count was pending, 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb dismissed the remaining charges. Bebb said there was a "taint" on the case because of 200-plus phone calls between Reedy and Cleveland Police Detective Duff Brumley, the chief detective in the case.

However, prosecutor Richard Fisher argued Thursday that the current charges, left over from previous indictments, were neither tried nor dismissed.

"They've always been separate and distinct offenses under the law," Fisher said.

That means double jeopardy -- the doctrine that a person can't be tried twice for the same crime -- doesn't apply, he said.

But defense attorney Lee Davis argued before Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood that all the counts were disposed of either when the earlier indictments were consolidated before Blair's trial, or afterward when Bebb dismissed the remaining counts.

Davis said double jeopardy does apply and so does another doctrine called "collateral estoppel," which holds that an issue that has been resolved at trial can't be brought up again in new proceedings.

Beyond that, Davis said, the fact that the case was taken back to the grand jury "highlights the ethical problems of this office, the ethical problems of Richard Fisher and the ethical problems of Steve Bebb."

In 2009, "Steve Bebb signed a motion saying Twanna Blair could never receive a fair trial" and dismissed charges against her, Davis said.

But this year, Bebb allowed Fisher to seek the new indictment even though the conflict still existed, he said. Then when Davis pointed to the conflict as a reason to drop the case, Bebb recused himself and asked for Fisher to be named temporary prosecutor.

The only just thing to do, Davis said to Blackwood, is to dismiss the charges against Blair.

"I believe this indictment is illegal; I believe it is unethical. I've never seen anything like it in my 27 years of practice," he said.

Blackwood did not say when he will rule in the case.

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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