Judge grants new trial for Angel Bumpass in 2009 Chattanooga killing

Angel Bumpass

Angel Bumpass, who was tried and convicted on first-degree murder charges and especially aggravated robbery in connection with the 2009 death of 68-year old Franklin Bonner, has been granted a new trial by a Hamilton County Criminal Court judge.

"I'm absolutely thrilled, I'm sure when I relay this information to Angel she would be thrilled as well," William Massey, Bumpass' attorney, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press by phone on Thursday, adding that he received the order via email on Wednesday evening. "I read it last night before going to bed."

Bumpass was 24 when she was found guilty by a jury of playing a role in Bonner's death when she was 13.

Bonner was found lying on the floor, bound to a kitchen table and chair inside his Washington Hills home on Jan. 16, 2009. He had duct tape around his feet, arms and head, nose and mouth. Suffocation was the cause of death, the medical examiner determined.

"The court agrees that the cumulative effect of errors by the court and the parties support the granting of a new trial," said the order granted and signed by Judge Tom Greenholtz. "Accordingly, the court grants the defendant's motion for a new trial."

One of the errors cited in the motion filed by Massey, on July 14, was the prosecution asking Linda Bonner, the victim's wife, if she knew Bumpass' grandmother, Shirley Bumpass, and if the grandmother had seen Bumpass at the Bonner home before.

When defense attorneys objected to the line of questioning, they questioned the relevance of it -- to which the prosecution said it would determine that Bumpass had a tie to the Bonner house, according to Massey's motion.

"It is respectfully submitted that this testimony created unfair prejudice to defendant by inviting speculation by the jury that defendant must have had some 'connection' or 'tie' to the Bonner home simply because her grandmother had possibly been there before," Massey said in the motion. "Any possible ties to the Bonner home that defendant's grandmother, Shirley Bumpass, may have had would not tend to make it more probable that Angel Bumpass, her 13-year-old granddaughter, robbed and killed Franklin Bonner in his home."

Another error Massey argued was made was allowing a portion of the notes from Chattanooga Detective Karl Fields, despite Fields being terminated by the department for "wrongdoing involving a witness," according to the motion.

As previously reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Fields was under investigation in 2014 for coaching a rape victim, and in 2016 he faced criminal charges for tampering with evidence. Those charges were ultimately dropped in 2017 by Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman, who said in his ruling there wasn't enough evidence to prove Fields guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Bumpass was tried with Mallory Vaughn, a man who was 26 at the time of Bonner's death. Bumpass was found guilty after almost five hours of deliberations. The jury acquitted Vaughn of all charges.

Bumpass and Vaughn were identified as suspects of Bonner's death ten years after the murder occurred, when the family asked prosecutors to take a second look at the case after it went cold. Bumpass' partial fingerprints were found on duct tape that was used to restrain Bonner at the time of his death, according to court records.

Bumpass' conviction caused a petition for a retrial through Change.org, where close to 900,000 signatures have been collected to date.

"She's had a wonderful support group from across the country, from around the world really," Massey said, adding that he's gotten letters of support for Bumpass from Europe.

The case was also the subject of episode 75 of the "Women & Crime" podcast, as well as being the subject of the May 12, 2020, episode of A&E's "Accused: Guilty or Innocent?" crime-docuseries.

Bumpass was sentenced to life in prison on Nov. 21, 2019, and would be eligible for parole in 2079, at the age of 84. Bumpass is serving her sentence in Nashville, at the Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center, formerly known as the Tennessee Prison for Women.

"It was particularly hard for her, she's always maintained her innocence in this," Massey said. "We won a battle at this point, but we still have a war in front of us. The state has 60 days to file an appeal. It's not a done deal yet."

Greenholtz vacated Bumpass' conviction and set the case back on the trial docket, and a status hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 7.

Massey said he is ready for the next step of the case, be it a trial or to answer an appeal.

"I don't think it would take us a particularly long time to prepare for a new trial, or an appeal," Massey said.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.