After approximately three hours of deliberations, a Hamilton County jury Friday found Billy Forte guilty of second-degree murder in connection with the shooting death of his adopted son nearly four years ago.
"I would say that is a reasonable verdict in light of the evidence," Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman said.
The mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree murder is 15 to 25 years, but the court could order Forte to serve up to 40. Sentencing was set for May 19.
Closing arguments began Friday at the conclusion of a four-day trial in which prosecutors attempted to prove premeditated first-degree murder. The jury chose the lesser charge.
Forte, 71 of Chattanooga, had previously admitted to shooting his son, Charles Forte, then 47, also of Chattanooga, after the men argued about money on April 2, 2018, according to the district attorney's office.
The elder Forte testified Thursday he had grown fearful of his son due in part to his history of drug dealing and changes in personality after he served time in prison. Billy Forte also said he thought Charles Forte was reaching for a gun during the fatal incident.
111th Western Amateur Championship: July 30, 2013
111th Western Amateur tournament July 30, 2013, at The Alotian Club in Roland
Billy Forte owned Eaves Formal Wear on Creekside Road, where the shooting took place. The business sold suits, shoes and other high-end clothing items and was in bankruptcy. According to his Facebook page, Charles Forte was the director of operations of the store. Billy Forte accused him of embezzling money from the business.
State attorney Lee Ortwein began his portion of closing arguments recapping testimony from Ollie Forte, Billy Forte's ex-wife and Charles Forte's mother.
"She said that [Billy] said he was going to deal with [Charles]," Ortwein said. "I guess, in a way, he did.
"The defendant wants you to believe an entirely different set of circumstances," Ortwein said, referring to the embezzling, intimidation and verbal abuse claims by the defense. "He had the shotgun shouldered and pointed it at the victim and killed him.
"He said, 'I was going to get him anyway, if he had his gun.' He meant to do it, he intended to do it, and he felt liberated, in other words, he felt free," Ortwein said, referencing Forte's confession to the police, which was presented in a video in court earlier this week.
"You can use your common sense on this also; if you're afraid of me, will you come and visit me?" Ortwein said, referring to Forte's claims of being in constant fear of his son, yet going to the Eaves Formal Wear warehouse on multiple occasions the day the shooting.
Defense attorney Ben McGowan began his closing argument by quoting portions of his client's testimony.
"'I was not happy that I shot my son. I did everything I could for that boy,'" McGowan said. "'I shot him because he was going to shoot me.'"
According to testimony, Forte had suffered a stroke two weeks before the shooting.
"We say all sorts of things when we're faced with stress," McGowan continued. "He had a stroke, he got out of the hospital after nine days, he wasn't following up on his treatment.
"He verbalizes his innermost thoughts. That folks, is emotion in a case," McGowan said. "But that's not how we solve a criminal case. What we use is evidence."
McGowan put into question the procedure of the responding officer to 910 Creekside Road off Amnicola Highway on April 2, 2018. The officer was responding to a call of a man being shot around 7:30 p.m., and body cam video showed the officer throwing bags and moving furniture out of the way.
"He doesn't check if Charles is dead. He doesn't perform life-saving methods," McGowan said. "And he begins to tear up that crime scene."
McGowan also argued that Charles Forte, who was on state-supervised probation after serving 11 months in prison on drug charges, was not eager to go to prison and would react violently to the threat of going back to prison, inciting fear in his client.
"The reason we don't have a gun is because they weren't looking hard enough for a gun," McGowan said. "Mr. Forte, who has lost everything because of this - his business, his family, his credibility in the community. I ask that you find him not guilty by reason of self-defense."
State attorney Miranda Johnson stated that Forte planned the murder.
"A lot has been said about the law and what the state has to prove to convict Billy Forte of premeditated first-degree murder," Johnson said. "He made the shells that killed his son. If you're making shotgun shells ahead of time, the state enters that as premeditation."
According to his testimony Thursday, Forte made several "dummy" casings, filled with rock salt and either five or six pellets that were not meant to be lethal. He also told the court he shot one round towards the floor, made eye contact with the victim before pointing the gun at his chest, and as Charles Forte reached under a drawer on the desk where he was standing, he shot him in the head.
"The defendant got on the stand and admitted that when he came into the business, he and Charles made eye contact," Johnson said. "Who provoked the situation?"
Billy Forte has maintained that his son was in possession of a firearm and claimed that it was in a bag at the desk when he was speaking to Chattanooga police Detective Taylor Walker. Forte later said the gun was in a case behind a door at the warehouse. During his closing argument, McGowan said police failed to search Charles Forte's second vehicle at the crime scene and that they could have missed finding the gun there.
"Where's the gun? There is no gun," Johnson said. "Charles did not have a gun, it's not consistent with the evidence"
"There was never a dum-dum round as he claimed. Both rounds were lethal," Johnson said while revisiting the evidence presented in court.
Johnson said lead pellets were found in both of the shell casings used by Forte.
"Billy Forte ... is all about money," Johnson said. "The defense said that he was sad when he testified, yeah, because he didn't care about anything else other than the business, and he was about to lose it.
"Two weeks before this murder happened, the defendant had a stroke," Johnson said. "Who called 911? It wasn't Ollie, it was Charles. Charles was there despite being threatened."
Johnson then referred to the portion of the police interrogation video where Billy Forte tells his son that he is either going to confess to the IRS about his alleged embezzlement or leave with a sheet over his head.
"Charles cared about the defendant, but the defendant didn't care about him, and that's the problem," Johnson said.