New day, new DA in 10th District: Crump's dual mission: Rebuild trust, keep community safe

New day, new DA in 10th District: Crump's dual mission: Rebuild trust, keep community safe

August 23rd, 2014 by Paul Leach in Local Regional News

10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Crump talks in the boardroom of his headquarters in Cleveland, Tenn. The mural behind him shows the former Merchants Bank and adjoining hotel from the turn of the century.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

ABOUT STEVE CRUMP

Age: 47

Hometown: Cleveland, Tenn.

Education: Graduated cum laude from Carson-Newman College, law degree from University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Prior experience: Opened private practice in Cleveland in 1994, joined Office of the District Attorney in 1997 and re-entered private practice in 2006

Other Activities: First Baptist Church: deacon and music ministry; SkyRidge Hospital board of trustees

Family: Married to Theresa Crump, two daughters

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - After more than two years of turmoil and investigations into the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office, the new man in the job's to-do list is as much about rebuilding the office and regaining public trust as it is about putting bad guys in jail.

New District Attorney Steve Crump said he will take a hands-on approach to resetting how justice is served within the district.

"I want my administration to be marked by the idea of humility and relentless pursuit of something better," Crump said in a recent interview.

That hands-on approach will include personally guiding two ongoing cases in the 15-year-old Valentine's Day triple-murder case, and reviewing the sheriff's office investigation into the 2013 death of a high-class call girl that a Times Free Press story criticized as sloppy and inadequate.

Crump, who won the Republican nomination for the post in May, was appointed interim DA by Gov. Bill Haslam in July after incumbent Steve Bebb resigned with two months left of his eight-year term.

In August 2012, the Times Free Press published a six-day series documenting allegations of financial and prosecutorial misconduct in the DA's office. The series triggered investigations by the state attorney general's office, the comptroller, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Board of Professional Responsibility and the state Legislature, but Bebb was never charged with any crime and left office voluntarily.

Crump won the seat in the Aug. 7 county general election.

New look at old cases

One of the matters of old business Crump faces is the conclusion of a trio of intertwined cases resulting from a triple slaying that occurred on Valentine's Day in 1999. The victims, O.J. Blair, Cayci Higgins and Dawn Rogers, were discovered shot execution-style in a Cleveland apartment after a fight between Blair and Maurice Johnson the previous night.

Three people eventually were charged in the case.

Johnson was convicted in 2009 of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life. He is seeking post-conviction relief, saying his original attorneys didn't properly defend his case.

Michael Younger's 2009 trial ended in a mistrial over prosecutorial misconduct, and Bebb dismissed the murder charges. But earlier this year, a prosecutor in Bebb's office reindicted Younger in the case.

The same prosecutor, Richard Fisher, also reindicted Twanna "Tart" Blair, who was found not guilty in her initial trial. A judge dismissed the new indictments, saying Blair has a constitutional right not to be tried twice for the same crime.

Crump said he worked on the cases as an assistant district attorney under former DA Jerry Estes, Bebb's predecessor.

"I'm taking a lead role in these cases because of my familiarity with them," Crump said.

He said he also plans to look at a number of other cases, based on requests he received during his campaign for office.

One involves the call girl's death, which the Bradley County Sheriff's Office investigation said was a suicide.

In March, the Times Free Press published a story critical of the sheriff's investigation. The woman was shot by her boyfriend's gun in his presence after an argument. But from the first 911 call, investigators treated the death as a suicide. They apparently never fingerprinted the gun, recovered the bullet or conducted forensics tests to check the boyfriend's story.

"I don't know that we'll ask that they reopen [the investigation], but what I have asked is for the sheriff's department to provide me a copy of that case file," said Crump.

Engaging the community

Crump said he wants his office to partner with law enforcement to better engage the community, whether in serving justice to victims or addressing crime prevention.

"Sheriff-elect Eric Watson and I share a lot of philosophies in regards to that," said Crump.

One of those cross-sections of interests focuses on encouraging children and young adults to not embrace drugs, gangs or other criminal activity. That should involve drug and gang task forces, other local law enforcement, the district attorney's office, educators and community stakeholders, he said.

And he hopes to promote intelligence-sharing within the 10th District's law enforcement and judicial system to further combat drugs, gangs and other crime, he said.

Watson said he and Crump have talked about how law enforcement and the DA's office can be responsive and informative to crime victims and families.

"We're kind of taking two roads to meet the same goal," said Watson regarding the overall and combined responsiveness to victims from beginning to end.

Improved office functions

Within his office, Crump said he wants to restructure how his attorneys handle caseloads to improve efficiency and expertise.

That includes assigning attorneys to either the north office, covering McMinn and Monroe counties, or the south office, comprising Bradley and Polk counties, and pairing more- and less-experienced attorneys in trial teams. He also hopes to coordinate misdemeanor hearings on a single day per week, giving attorneys more time for tougher cases.

He's going to start by evaluating the attorneys in the office, he said.

"We are doing things the same way we have been doing them for decades in criminal prosecution -- and we have to change that," said Crump. "The first goal is to look at every aspect of criminal prosecution and evaluate whether it's working as efficiently as it should."

With his first 60 days nearly under his belt, Crump said he felt positive about what his office could do.

"We are absolutely up to the task," he said.

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Contact him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.