Witness in Labor Day triple shooting under police protection after death threats

Witness in Labor Day triple shooting under police protection after death threats

September 10th, 2016 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

Two people were killed and a third was wounded in a triple shooting in East Brainerd.

Photo by Steve Johnson /Times Free Press.

Bystanders move to take cover in a nearby church as a fight breaks out at the scene of a triple shooting in East Brainerd.

Bystanders move to take cover in a nearby...

Photo by Steve Johnson /Times Free Press.

On Monday, a woman was shot multiple times but survived an attack that left two others dead.

On Tuesday, police named a suspect in the case: 32-year-old Stephen Mobley, a convicted killer well known on Chattanooga's streets.

On Wednesday, Mobley surrendered.

The first death threat against the surviving witness came a few hours later, police said.

And hours after that, a local TV station published her name, despite police concerns that this woman's path could mirror that of Bianca Horton, a witness to a quadruple shooting who was killed in May, four months before she was set to testify in a murder trial following that shooting.

Witnesses to violent crimes in Chattanooga often later face intimidation and threats, authorities say. The threats can silence witnesses or scare them into changing their stories, which can derail prosecutions and allow the guilty to walk free. Often, witnesses never tell police what they know.

The woman who survived Monday's double homicide has a long road ahead in the case against Mobley, a man who beat a 2012 murder charge when the key witness in that case changed her story multiple times.

The double-homicide survivor will not be identified in this story.

"Bianca Horton opened our eyes to realize Chattanooga is not a small city any more," police Sgt. Josh May said. "This isn't just something that happens just in large cities or in the movies. We want to take extra precautions moving forward with victims and witnesses to keep them as safe as we can."

***

Bianca Horton was shot six times in May, her body dumped on the side of the road.

Police haven't caught her killer.

But they did catch a man accused of shooting Horton; her daughter; an 18-year-old man and 20-year-old Talitha Bowman during a home invasion in January 2015.

Bowman was killed. Horton's daughter, Zoey Duncan, was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. She was 1 year old.

After the quadruple shooting, Horton cooperated with police. Investigators arrested Cortez Sims, who was 17 at the time. Horton tried to put her family's life back together.

At night, she'd dream that Zoey could still walk, she told the Times Free Press.

Her slaying this spring rattled both the police department and residents, May said. It had a chilling effect on the streets, making witnesses even more reluctant to cooperate with investigators. Within the department, officers used more caution when dealing with witness identities.

Mayor Andy Berke launched a witness protection fund — money that was used this week to help pay to protect the woman who survived Monday's double homicide.

She shut down her social media account after receiving the death threats, police said.

Ubiquitous social media has made it easy to threaten witnesses, May said, but it's relatively rare for those threats to escalate into actual violence. Often, the threats alone are enough to intimidate a victim or witness.

"If the purpose is to get them scared to testify, you don't have to go out and shoot up their house," he said. "You just need to make them think twice about showing up [for court]. You see it quite, quite often where witnesses and victims just don't show up."

The suspect in this week's double homicide, Mobley, had been charged with first-degree murder twice before Monday's slayings. In the first case, a 2005 shooting death, Mobley pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six years. He was released in 2010.

Then he was charged in the 2012 death of Gregory Watkins. A jury couldn't agree on a verdict, and the charges were dismissed.

The 2012 case hinged on the testimony of one witness. But that witness gave different stories to police, admitted to lying on the stand and eventually was charged with giving false reports. She was Mobley's cousin.

May said Mobley's past shows he is "obviously a danger," which is part of the reason police refused to release the Monday shooting survivor's name to the public.

However, her name was included in a public record — Mobley's arrest affidavit — released on Wednesday, the same day Mobley turned himself in.

***

Most media outlets, including the Times Free Press, chose not use the woman's name in subsequent reporting. However, WTVC NewsChannel 9 did release the woman's name. A local news website also published the name but then removed it.

WTVC identified the woman in at least one evening newscast after police warned the station that withholding her identity was "crucial to her safety."

May called the station's action "incredibly frustrating," and said that by confirming a name under such circumstances "you tighten that bullseye on her back."

Mike Costa, general manager at WTVC, said the station aired the woman's name because of the public's right to know.

"WTVC believes in the public's right to know all relevant details, and the decision in this case is consistent with our historic reporting practices," Costa wrote in a statement. "Based on communication with the Chattanooga police, we thoughtfully considered the circumstances and applied the same standards we always do."

He declined to comment further.

Considering how much information to publish and what impact it will have on a community is a critical part of any media outlet's job, said Kevin Smith, former chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee.

"Just because you have a right to do something doesn't mean there's a moral obligation for you to do it," he said.

The first two tenets in the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics say that journalists should first seek the truth and report it, and second, should minimize harm.

"We know that in the process of reporting we may create harm," Smith said. "But we need to be vigilant in making sure we don't create undue harm. Those two [tenets] are side by side for a reason."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.


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