Since Chattanooga Police Department detective Karl Fields was accused of making unwanted advances toward a rape victim last August, his body of investigative work has been subject to intense scrutiny.
Now a man who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting of a Chattanooga rapper wants his conviction overturned because he says Fields lost key evidence before his trial.
Alonzo Grace, 45, is serving a 15-year sentence for the 2009 death of Robert "Brikk" Brown. His nephew, Dexter Talley, pleaded guilty to facilitation to commit aggravated robbery in the case. Prosecutors said the pair planned to rob Brown, a rapper on tour with a California-based record label, of drugs and cash while he stayed with friends in Chattanooga.
At a post-conviction petition hearing Wednesday, Grace's attorney, Brandy Spurgin, brought up what she said were problems with Fields' handling of evidence in the case. She cited an article published on the Chattanoogan.com website that stated an investigator who had interviewed a living victim of the shooting in California had turned information over to Fields, but that Fields had lost the evidence.
When Spurgin examined Fields on the stand, he said he remembered the investigator traveling to California, but had no memory of losing any information that was presented to him.
"I've never heard of anything like that," Fields said.
She also asked Fields to list his tattoos.
He said he had a cancer ribbon on his right forearm, an image of the crucified Christ on his right bicep, his wife's initials on his shoulder, and the words "misunderstood" on his forearm and "save me from myself" on his chest.
Fields said the "misunderstood" tattoo includes a pitchfork on one side and a halo on the other. Though Fields said he was not aware of any gang symbolism in any of his tattoos, Spurgin said later that the pitchfork is known as a symbol of the Gangster Disciples.
Spurgin said evidence about Fields' tattoos should have come out at trial.
"If any witness has a motivation to not tell the truth on the stand, then obviously it's relevant to their credibility," Spurgin said.
It's not the first time Fields has been accused of mishandling or destroying evidence. In 2012, a defense attorney questioned how he lost audio files of an interview during a trial. That's not unusual, but the following year Fields was accused of coaching a witness, and in 2014 he was accused of failing to test all the guns at a murder scene.
When murder suspect Cordalro Strickland accepted a plea deal for 15 years in December, prosecutors said Fields' status factored into their offer. Spurgin, who was also Strickland's attorney, said she thinks ripple effects from the TBI investigation into Fields' conduct aren't finished.
"I do think it's something that will continue to impact the remaining cases that Fields was involved in," Spurgin said.
Grace's original trial on charges of first-degree murder ended in a hung jury. Later, he says, his attorney encouraged him to take a plea deal for second-degree murder, even though he says he wanted to plead only to negligent homicide because he didn't call for help.
At Wednesday's hearing, Grace said there were problems with his plea. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder while he was in jail for nearly four years awaiting a resolution of his case. He was prescribed a number of medications, but said when the judge asked him if he was on anything before pleading guilty, he lied and said he was not.
"I felt like I was really a victim," Grace said at the Wednesday hearing.
Prosecutor Brian Finlay pointed out that Grace has pleaded guilty, in the same courtroom, twice before. There was no way the process could be foreign to him, he said.
Though Grace's sister said he was acting strangely around the time he took the plea, his former attorney, Donna Miller, testified that she was not worried about his mental competency.
Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter@clairelwiseman.
Previous news report: