District attorney now under fire was judge in overturned murder trial

District attorney now under fire was judge in overturned murder trial

August 14th, 2012 by Todd South in News

Steve Bebb

A man whose charges of murder and incest in the 1992 death of his daughter were dismissed has filed a $20 million federal lawsuit against McMinn County.

Current head prosecutor for the 10th Judicial District, Steve Bebb, served as judge in the trial of Gussie Vann. Bebb has come under fire recently in a lengthy Times Free Press investigation of allegations of professional and financial improprieties in his office during his tenure as district attorney for Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties.

McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said Monday that he had not seen the lawsuit and deferred any comment to county attorneys.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by local attorney Robin Flores, claims that McMinn criminal investigators Jerry Lynn Tate and Gary Cullins held Vann for 48 hours without probable cause shortly after his arrest following the July 31, 1992, death of his 8-year-old daughter, Necia Vann.

"He's a poor man, doesn't have much education," Flores said. "According to him, they just ran roughshod over him."

Police continued to hold Vann for 10 months without allowing him to see an attorney, according to court documents.

Flores claims in the complaint that Cullins and Tate, who have since died, enlisted medical examiner Dr. Ronald Toolsie to perform an autopsy of the child. Toolsie has since lost his license to practice medicine in Tennessee in part because of prescription drug abuse, according to court documents.

Flores said both Bebb and the case's prosecutor, then-District Attorney Jerry Estes, likely would be immune from civil suit while acting in their capacity as government officials. And with both investigators dead, it's unlikely his client would be able to recoup any damages from their estates, Flores said.

But the county government, he said, would be responsible for the officials' conduct.

A McMinn jury found Vann guilty on Aug. 11, 1994. He was sentenced to death by the electric chair.

The prison term has sapped Vann's health, Flores said.

On Sept. 22, 2011, charges of felony murder and incest were dismissed against Vann, due partly to civil rights and evidence gathering violations, according to court documents.

Vann remains in the Morgan County Correctional Complex on back-to-back 25-year sentences imposed by Bebb for separate rape charges involving Vann's 13-year-old niece.

His wife Bernice, then 28, also was charged, pleaded guilty in August 1995 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, according to Times Free Press archives.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.