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Carless LeBron Cross

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — A surprise witness told the jury that before Nevely Lewis died in a fire, she suffered from dementia. Also, her insurance policy changed, cutting out one of the beneficiaries.

But her accused killer, Carless LeBron Cross, was not on the insurance policy. Her daughter, Colleen Cross, would have been the person to benefit, according to testimony Friday afternoon by Jennifer Miller.

Miller is Colleen Cross' daughter and Nevely Lewis' granddaughter. She is also the former stepdaughter of Carless Cross, who was married to Colleen until two years ago. In November 2015, after Carless and Colleen separated, Colleen's home at 23 Myers Road in Chickamauga caught fire. She escaped, but Lewis died.

Carless Cross is on trial in Walker County Superior Court on charges of malice murder, felony murder, arson and making false statements to law enforcement. Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Beth Evans says Carless Cross burned down the house to spite his estranged wife, and multiple witnesses say they heard him threaten to burn down the home several times over the years.

But Miller's testimony Friday put her own mother in the crosshairs. Her appearance was a surprise. Public Defender David Dunn did not plan for her to be his star witness at the beginning of the week. But on Wednesday, after the trial began, Miller called his office from her Louisiana home, explaining she had some information she wanted to share.

In a video conference streamed into a courtroom TV, Miller testified that Lewis had suffered from dementia for several years before her death. She would forget who Miller was on the phone. When Miller visited, Lewis would forget she was there if they were in different rooms. She wasn't allowed to cook anymore because she would forget halfway through preparation, leaving food on the stove.

Miller testified that Colleen Cross was annoyed by Lewis' problems.

"She complained about it all the time," Miller said. "She would call her stupid."

After the fire, while looking for medical records for a family cat, Miller said she found a copy of Lewis' AARP life insurance policy. She said she had been removed as a beneficiary, which left only Colleen Cross' name on the plan.

Miller disputed the claim. In the process, she received some of Lewis' old medical records from the former Hutcheson Medical Center clinic in Chickamauga. The records included some doctor's notes about Lewis suffering from dementia.

Further, she said that Colleen Cross asked her to lie to Walker County Fire Marshal Waymond Westbrook, who was investigating the case. Miller testified that her mother wanted her to tell Westbrook that Carless Cross and his new girlfriend had threatened Miller.

She said Westbrook wrote this off as Colleen Cross feeling hurt by her mother's loss; she was so certain that her ex-husband lit the fire, she was willing to lie to police.

The defense and state both rested, and they will make closing arguments to the jury Monday. After Friday's proceedings, Dunn said Miller's testimony creates an alternative theory for how the deadly fire got started.

"(Colleen Cross) had more motive than (Carless Cross) had," Dunn said during an unsuccessful motion for Judge Don Thompson to acquit his client, rather than send the case to the jury. "She certainly had more opportunity than he had."

Evans questioned the timing of Miller's emergence in the case. Miller had been under subpoena by the district attorney's office as a potential witness. But she told the office she could not come to LaFayette because of a conflict back home. She had called an assistant in the prosecutor's office last week, asking for information about when the trial would begin. But she did not mention this information.

Miller told Evans that, in fact, she had shared important information with the investigator before the case reached trial. She said she told him about her mother's request to lie in the case, as well as the fact that the insurance policy changed before Lewis' death.

"It's not my fault nobody came to me," she said, "or even responded to me telling them this information. I told Mr. Westbrook. He was the investigator on this case. Did none of this get related to you guys?"

"Are you trying to make sure the jury lets LeBron go?" Evans asked during another exchange.

"No," Miller said.

"But you want your mother to get in trouble, too," Evans said.

"No," Miller said. "I want to make sure all the facts are there."

She said she finally called Dunn's office Wednesday because she was curious why Carless Cross' attorney didn't want to hear from her. After Friday's proceedings, Dunn told the Times Free Press that the state never told him about the helpful information.

Under the Brady rule, prosecutors are required to give defense attorneys any evidence that could be favorable to the defendant.

"It's a clear Brady violation," Dunn said. "And it's not the only Brady violation in the case. They've flagrantly ignored the conditional requirements repeatedly."

He declined to comment when asked about other violations by the prosecution.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-75706476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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