Tony Bigoms, 54, listens during jury selection for his first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse trial in the November 2012 slaying of Dana Wilkes in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom at the city-county courts building on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, in Chattanooga.

Appeals court decision


Standing in the same courtroom, facing the same charges, Tony Bigoms once again pleaded not guilty today to murdering Dana Wilkes in 2012 and sawing off her hands and head.

Bigoms, 58, will next appear Nov. 1 in Hamilton County Criminal Court. He remains in custody on a $250,000 bond.

Bigoms was convicted of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse after a trial in 2014. But the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals reversed his judgment in June, citing issues with jury sequestration and the local judge's decision to allow testimony about a different 2006 murder for which Bigoms was acquitted.

That means Bigoms, who was already serving a life sentence, has the right to a new trial here.

Specifically, the appeals court sided with Bigoms' public defenders on two points: Jury sequestration and admitting evidence of a prior bad act.

Jurors are not supposed to research a case outside of court, and when sequestered, they are prohibited access to television, newspapers and all electronic devices while they stay in a local hotel under the supervision of Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies.

The appeals court ruled, however, that two courthouse officers "did not observe any of the jurors while they went home to pack and had no knowledge of whether the jurors spoke to any outside parties or received any outside information during this separation."

Jurors got to visit and speak on the phone with family members during the trial. Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman asked jurors every day if they followed the rules to not research or discuss the case, the appeals court said. The courthouse officers, however, "did not observe all of the phone calls made during the trial."

"While the foreperson testified that he did not receive any outside information during these separations he did not know what the other jurors did when they went home to pack or the content of their phone conversations," the appeals court wrote.

The second issue was allowing a Tennessee Bureau of Information agent to discuss at trial how he collected DNA from a different victim's mouth and fingernails in 2006 and matched it to Bigoms.

After being acquitted in the 2006 kidnap, rape and murder of Burney, Bigoms had the case expunged, or erased, from record. A year later, he was convicted of holding a knife to another woman's throat and forcing her to perform oral sex on him, court records show.

Bigoms' public defenders argued that jurors shouldn't have learned any information about his prior 2006 case. Instead, it was introduced through the TBI agent and mentioned during closing arguments, the appeals court wrote.

"The defendant having been on trial in a previous matter is the only plausible inference the jury could draw [from the TBI agent's testimony about the 2006 case]," the appeals court wrote.

"Moreover, this inference was bolstered by the state's argument that hearing [the TBI agent] gave the defendant a 'particular incentive to remove the victim's head and hands."

Bigoms doesn't have a new trial date yet.

If the state agreed to it or offered it, Bigoms could enter a plea agreement. In the meantime, his public defenders can file motions to reduce his bond or suppress certain pieces of evidence.

Wilkes, the victim in the case, disappeared from her home on Palo Verde Drive in November 2012. Family and friends began to call her son when she didn't arrive at work on Nov. 10, he testified, and he found her abandoned Jeep Grand Cherokee near the Wilcox Boulevard Tunnel.

Two weeks later, duck hunters discovered Wilkes' body along South Chickamauga Creek, headless and handless. Bigoms' DNA was found on her bra, which was near the body, and on a cigarette butt inside the jeep. He was the last person with her before her death, police said.

This is a developing story. Please check back later for more information.