A former Chattanooga police officer concealed exonerating evidence against a man facing rape charges to preserve a relationship he was having with the alleged victim, prosecutors said Tuesday during opening remarks of his trial.
Karl Fields, 44, faces one count of tampering with evidence and one count of official misconduct in Hamilton County Criminal Court as a result of his work in a rape and kidnapping case from May 2014.
Fields, then an investigator with the major crimes division, had access to six cellphone videos of a woman having "what appears to be consensual sex" with James Leon Works Jr., special prosecutor Alyson Kennedy told jurors. It is against Times Free Press policy to identify alleged victims of sex crimes.
The woman, in a June 2014 report to police, said Works, a childhood friend, locked her in a hotel room, forced her to smoke meth, and raped, kicked and burned her for several days before she escaped.
Later that month, while meeting at El Meson Restaurante, Fields told the woman he had made a copy of the videos and watched them with the volume off, the woman told the Times Free Press. From there, Fields made several sexual advances as the two exchanged hundreds of text messages over the summer.
The woman turned those messages over to District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, who asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to examine them that fall. Fields was suspended, fired in March 2015, and indicted about a year later on the charges.
Kennedy, who has prosecuted the case since Pinkston recused himself, said Fields never turned those videos over to the DA's office when he submitted his case file on Aug. 20, 2014. By preventing the video from being used in the investigation, Fields hoped to hide evidence that Works and the woman had had a prior sexual relationship, thereby strengthening her claim she had been raped.
"The defendant took these actions to further that relationship with the woman," Kennedy said. "At the conclusion, we would ask you to find him guilty."
The indictment said Fields hid the cellphone video so it wouldn't be used in the investigation, according to news reports.
Defense attorney Jerry Tidwell acknowledged Fields' behavior was inappropriate but said his client followed the proper chain of custody and had been framed by a woman whose credibility caused prosecutors to drop the worst charges against Works.
Works pleaded guilty in July 2015 to lesser charges after the woman's reliability came under question for drug arrests and writing friendly notes to Works while he was in jail.
On Tuesday, Tidwell walked through the timeline of the Works investigation, saying of Fields that "I believe the evidence is going to show the cellphone was never in his hand."
The same day officers responded to the woman's rape allegations, they found Works asleep in his room at the Red Roof Inn on Shallowford Road with 34 grams of meth, 4 grams of marijuana, a pair of brass knuckles and a blow torch. A different on-scene officer, Brian Cottell, seized the cellphone and checked it into the property room, Tidwell said.
Authorities filed charges of possession of a prohibited weapon, possession of marijuana, possession of methamphetamine, making methamphetamine, aggravated assault and kidnapping and rape, news archives show.
About two weeks later, unable to make bond, Works demanded a preliminary hearing in Hamilton County General Sessions Court, Tidwell said. It happened June 18, 2014, before Fields could watch the videos.
"At the hearing, Cottell testified, 'Well we took a cellphone from James Works and it may have some evidence on it, but we haven't looked at it yet,'" Tidwell said. "They said that in open court."
The remedy: A search warrant requesting to analyze the cellphone for rape evidence July 8, 2014. After a magistrate granted it, a police technician downloaded the contents onto a disc and handed it to Fields days later, Tidwell said.
But Fields noticed a problem when watching the first portion of the video: The sex seemed consensual. "So he goes to his then-head of major crimes, Sgt. Bill Phillips, and they talk about the case," Tidwell said. "There's no question [the woman] is beaten up by this guy, but they debate whether there's enough proof."
Tidwell said Phillips notified Pinkston about the video, who handed it over to Works' public defender after realizing it could exonerate the man of rape accusations.
When Pinkston asked for the Works case file in August 2014, the videos weren't in there, Tidwell said. "But," he argued in his client's defense, "you're going to hear proof Karl Fields was on vacation that week. It's on his desk calendar. The TBI took a picture of it, and there's airline tickets."
Kennedy, who said she might conclude the state's case today, argued that Fields was one of the few who had access to copies of the cellphone data.
"You wouldn't know if somebody picked up a copy of the phone data before you?" Kennedy asked Joseph Shaw, a Chattanooga police officer who worked in Fields' division in 2014.
"Right," he said, "unless there was a supplement."
"Did you find a supplement in the case file to indicate somebody had picked up that case file already?" she asked.
"I did not," Shaw said.
Tidwell cannot put on proof until the state rests its case. The trial continues today in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom at 8:30 a.m.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.relatedarticlethumbrelatedarticlethumb