Judge orders separate trials for four men charged with murder in Chattanooga

Judge orders separate trials for four men charged with murder in Chattanooga

February 28th, 2012 by Todd South in News

John Thomas Simpson

John Thomas Simpson

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Four men charged in a June 2010 killing will have separate trials after a judge's order.

John Thomas Simpson, 31, faces his first-degree murder trial on March 20 while his three co-defendants -- Unjolee Tremone Moore, 25; Harold Francis Butler III, 31; and Steven James Ballou, 32 -- will learn their trial dates Wednesday.

Attorneys for the co-defendants requested separate trials after seeing statements made by Moore and Simpson that "implicate all three, including [Simpson]," Assistant District Attorney Cameron Williams said at a Monday hearing.

The four men were arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the June 29, 2010, home invasion and shooting death of Bernard Hughes, 46. Another victim in the shooting, Timothy Westfield, 45, was shot in the hand.

Westfield sat in court Monday. In an earlier interview with police he said he could not identify the shooters.

Prosecutors cannot mention Simpson's gang affiliation but are seeking to talk about the misspelled word "Cuthroat" tattooed across Simpson's throat for identification purposes. Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole ordered a separate hearing on that request.

Under Tennessee rules of evidence, mentioning gang affiliation must be relevant to the crime committed. Prosecutors have not shown through either statements or witnesses' testimony in pre-trial filings that the crime was gang-related.

Police said at the time that Hughes opened the door of his 4417 Oakwood Drive apartment to find two armed, masked men, who pushed their way inside to rob him.

Hughes grabbed one of the assailant's guns and struggled for control of the weapon. Westfield, who was visiting Hughes, tried to help, and the gunman shot both men.

Ballou's attorney, Jonathan Turner, said after the hearing that defendants have a right to confront statements against them and, since other co-defendants also have the right to not testify to avoid self-incrimination, trials are typically split to protect those rights.

In 1999 and 2001, Simpson pleaded guilty to separate aggravated robberies. He was sentenced to eight years in the first robbery and six years in the second.

Moore also faces charges in a separate robbery and kidnapping, according to court records. He has not yet been tried on those charges.

Ballou pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in a separate case on Sept. 5, 2000. Judge Rebecca Stern sentenced him to 13 years.

All four men are in jail as they await trial.

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