Probe affects Chattanooga detective's cases; plea deal gives shooter one-third the sentence

photo Karl Fields testifies during a hearing for Cordalro Strickland in Judge Don Poole's courtroom in Chattanooga on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2014.

Though embattled Chattanooga police detective Karl Fields' career still hangs in the balance, questions about his conduct already have affected the high-profile cases he worked as a lead investigator.

On Monday, prosecutors said Fields' status was considered before the state offered Cordalro Strickland a second-degree murder plea agreement with a sentence of 15 years, less than a third of what he could have served if convicted.

"I think if it had not been for what was going on with Fields, we probably would not have been in that ballpark," Strickland's attorney, Brandy Spurgin, said.

Friday will mark three months since District Attorney General Neal Pinkston asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into Fields' alleged misconduct with a rape victim this summer. The woman claimed Fields sent her inappropriate text messages, showed up at her house at night and asked her to have sex with him while he was the lead investigator on her rape case.

Fields is on administrative leave. The TBI's investigation remains ongoing, as does the Chattanooga Police Department's internal affairs investigation.

Fields was the lead investigator in the 2011 murder case against Cordalro Strickland. Police say Strickland shot Melvin "Brando" Fennell, 25, to death on Arlington Avenue. Also shot were Calvin Garner, 24, and Mariah Stoudemire, 21.

Strickland pled no contest to charges including second-degree murder, two counts of attempted first-degree murder and reckless endangerment. He will serve a maximum sentence of 15 years, but could have faced up to 51 if convicted. Prosecutors also agreed to drop charges of theft under $500 and aggravated assault.

As he stood before Judge Don Poole on Monday, Strickland seemed both resigned and angry. Despite conflicting statements from Stoudemire, he said, he was afraid a jury could convict him.

"I got no choice," Strickland said.

During Strickland's pre-trial hearing in October, Fields pled the fifth when Spurgin asked him about the internal affairs investigation. Poole ruled that, if the case went to trial, Spurgin could ask Fields whether he was on administrative leave and why he was being investigated.

photo Cordalro Strickland listens during his hearing in Judge Don Poole's courtroom in Chattanooga on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2014.

Spurgin said she planned to use those questions to point out what she called a flawed investigation in the Strickland case. Among other issues, Spurgin said, the crime scene was contaminated. DNA samples taken in 2012 weren't processed until right before an earlier trial date in 2013, she said. Those samples made multiple trips back and forth to the TBI crime lab, raising questions about chain of custody when Fields was in charge, she said.

Strickland's mother, Audrey Cunningham, didn't want her son to take a plea deal. She believed attorneys should have worked harder to expose problems with the DNA collection at the crime scene.

"I wanted him to fight this and go to trial and not be in fear of the lie of the DNA," Cunningham said.

She wants all Fields' investigations re-examined.

"I'm hoping he'll be indicted," Cunningham said. "It shows you the crookedness that is involved throughout the police force dealing with crime scenes."

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.