An attorney for Jason Chen, who is accused of murdering Jasmine Pace in 2022, argued Monday in Hamilton County Criminal Court that certain evidence found by the victim's family should be withheld from trial due to an alleged illegal search.
Chen, 23, is charged with first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse in connection with the death of Pace, 22.
Members of Pace's family went into Chen's apartment at least three times while she was missing, Catrina Pace, the victim's mother, said in court Monday. They searched Chen's apartment and took some of his belongings from the premises including notebooks holding bank statements, tax returns and a lease agreement, his gaming station, phones and tablets.
When Chattanooga police officers went inside Chen's apartment for the first time, their body camera footage did not show a knife on Chen's bed, Joshua Weiss, Chen's attorney, said in court Monday.
Officers went on to find a knife on Chen's bed at a later warranted search, Weiss said.
"Did you ever take a knife from anywhere else in the residence and place it on Chen's bed?" Weiss asked Catrina Pace. "Did you feel like you were helping law enforcement to solve the case?"
She did not, Catrina Pace said.
"I just wanted to find my daughter," she said repeatedly throughout the nearly five-hour hearing.
Jasmine Pace's entire family was spending time in the hospital around Thanksgiving 2022 because a close family member was dying, Catrina Pace said. Her daughter went missing during that time.
"I was concerned that she wasn't with us," Catrina Pace said. "Everyone handles grief differently."
Jasmine Pace's family became worried about her whereabouts after unsuccessful attempts to contact her, Catrina Pace said. Catrina realized she could switch her daughter's phone number to a different cellphone and accessed her daughter's car location and recent communications.
Chen was allegedly one of those recent communications, Catrina Pace said. She knew her daughter was getting to know Chen, but she did not know where he lived.
She used the myChevrolet application to locate Jasmine Pace's vehicle, which was parked at Signal View Apartments on Mountain Creek Road, Catrina Pace said. The family called 911, and Chattanooga police officers responded.
Officers appeared somewhat disinterested or unhelpful, but they took a report, Catrina Pace said.
There was body camera footage captured during that interaction, Weiss said. The last seven or eight minutes of that footage was muted.
Jasmine Pace's family members continued their own search, Catrina Pace said, as she noticed for the first time her daughter shared her location via text message prior to her disappearance.
Jasmine Pace's mother and father, her sister, a friend and her father's girlfriend are believed to have made their way to that location in the middle of the night. It was an apartment building at 110 Tremont St.
Catrina Pace allegedly started knocking on every apartment trying to determine who knew her daughter or Chen, she said. One man allegedly identified Chen as a resident.
Another resident on the second floor allegedly heard a woman screaming in distress earlier, Catrina Pace said. He took a timestamped note about the disturbance on his phone because it stood out to him.
Catrina Pace said her daughter shared her location minutes before the neighbor heard shouting.
The family members went to Chen's apartment, Catrina Pace said. She believes the family used a credit card to unlock the door and get inside the apartment but could not remember for certain. They allegedly found Jasmine Pace's bag, driver's license and credit cards inside.
Then, Jasmine Pace's family contacted law enforcement, Catrina Pace said. Officers were able to scan through the apartment for a body but nothing else, which Weiss argues constitutes a warrantless search.
Officers allegedly told Jasmine Pace's family to leave the premises. They were not cited or arrested.
The family reentered Chen's apartment after officers left, she said. Catrina Pace took several of Chen's belongings in an attempt to locate her daughter. She also returned to Chen's apartment a third time and possibly a fourth.
Catrina Pace allegedly had still not turned over the gaming station and other evidence until late January, Weiss said.
"I'm going to assume it's not normal for you to be breaking into apartments?" Weiss said.
"It's not normal for my daughter to be missing," Catrina Pace said.
Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp posed that Catrina Pace gave birth to Jasmine Pace and has maternal instincts, which drove her to do whatever it took to find her daughter when she felt like she was not being helped by law enforcement.
"They literally were not helping you," Wamp said.
Weiss also repeatedly questioned Jasmine Pace's stepfather, father, sister and mother about whether officers encouraged them to keep up their own investigation and if items were moved around Chen's apartment to create an incriminating appearance.
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson will continue the hearing March 15 with testimony from law enforcement. The trial is expected to take place this summer. If the case heads to trial, it will be heard by a jury from another county, Wamp said.