A defense attorney whose client is being tried next week in connection with the 2014 Lookout Valley triple homicide wants to exclude evidence he said is contaminated.
Defense attorney Dan Ripper on Monday said prosecutors shared numerous pieces of evidence collected by law enforcement in the aftermath of the April 9, 2014, slayings of Caleb Boozer, John Lang and Jon Morris at an RV lot at 4504 Kellys Ferry Road.
But one item, Ripper said, never came to his attention until the state turned over a master list of evidence Friday afternoon: A T-shirt that tested positive for gunshot residue collected from Derek Morse, one of three men charged with murder in the crime.
"This is problematic because a detailed review of every evidence [inventory] provided to the defendant indicates there is no listing for a tee shirt which would have belonged to Derek Morse," Ripper wrote in a motion.
Prosecutors said they were confident they'd be able to show a clear chain of custody at trial, which starts next Tuesday. But Ripper said the missing T-shirt had a ripple effect: Chattanooga authorities sent it to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in the same package as a pair of Morse's shorts, "allowing for the very real possibility of cross-contamination," since gunshot residue is easily transferable.
Ripper asked for the gunshot residue test and T-shirt to be excluded from evidence. Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman, who is overseeing the case, said he will hold a hearing outside of the jury's presence to make the state outline how they found the evidence and when they checked it into custody.
Supported by video footage, recorded interviews and statements from the defendants, prosecutors believe Morse and Skyler Allen opened fire around 6:50 p.m. at the RV lot, killing three and wounding then-teenager Michael Callan. Morse and Allen, as well as an alleged driver, then-teenager Jacob Allison, each face three counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.
For a long time, prosecutors planned to try Morse and Allen together, opposing the defense's request to grant them separate proceedings. But they recently agreed to a severance, said defense attorney Ben McGowan, who has long argued the state has less evidence against his client, Allen. That means Morse goes to trial alone, with Allen next appearing Oct. 2. Prosecutors also added more witnesses to their arsenal, assistant district attorney Cameron Williams announced Monday, including Allison.
During any criminal case, prosecutors have to base their decisions on whatever evidence law enforcement collects. A common technique among defense attorneys is to challenge "the chain of custody," a term that refers to the paper trail law enforcement maintains for any piece of evidence. Who collected it? Who booked it into evidence? Did officers secure a search warrant first? Law enforcement agencies typically create inventory lists to document whatever items they seize from a scene.
Ripper's contention here is that authorities took seven items belonging to Morse from a home on Elder Mountain Road. They marked all of them on an inventory list, he said, except the T-shirt.
There are two references to the T-shirt in the record: The report for gunshot residue issued in August 2015, and a master list that documents all of the couple of hundred evidentiary items the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office collected here. Ripper said he noticed the T-shirt when prosecutors turned over that master list on Friday afternoon.
This isn't the first time a defense attorney has questioned the chain of custody in this case. During a hearing in June, McGowan said a man "who did not like Skyler Allen" told authorities that one of the recovered weapons belonged to the 25-year-old. But before the same man could make a positive identification, authorities sent that weapon, a machine-taped .22-caliber rifle, to the TBI.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.