Eight years ago, prosecutors say, Unjolee Moore drove three associates to and from a fatal home invasion at the British Woods Apartments. Though prosecutors didn't have witnesses or DNA evidence placing him there, they had an alleged confession in which Moore said he helped plan the robbery of 46-year-old Bernard Hughes, not knowing it would turn fatal.
That was enough for jurors in 2013 to convict Moore, now 32, of felony murder, attempted especially aggravated robbery, aggravated robbery, second-degree murder and employing a firearm during a dangerous felony. Those charges resulted in a life sentence that he's serving at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center near Nashville.
But on Monday in Hamilton County Criminal Court, Moore's attorneys will argue that ineffective assistance of counsel resulted in a wrongful conviction in 2013 and a rejected appeal three years later.
His new attorneys say his trial lawyer didn't call key alibi witnesses in his defense or ask for a new trial date when he received critical evidence a week before jurors were summoned. Also, Moore's advocates say, there was police misconduct that resulted in uncollected evidence, a coercive interview with detectives that's only partially recorded and a suspect who initially implicated Moore who was in contact with her relative, then a high-ranking lieutenant at the Chattanooga Police Department, before and after the homicide.
The Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County District Attorney's Office declined to comment, citing a pending case.
According to Times Free Press archives, prosecutors at trial said Moore told police what happened, the robbery plans, his involvement and other details, such as the caliber of the weapons used, that had not been publicly released. In a recently filed motion, prosecutor Cameron Williams denied Moore received ineffective counsel, writing that even if he had, there's "no reasonable probability" his case would have ended differently.
Moore's current attorneys, Daniel Murphy and Barry Woods of Nashville, say they've complied hundreds of documents to make their case, including a transcript of Moore's alleged confession and police reports showing how Chattanooga detectives ended up arresting Steven Ballou, Harold Butler, John Simpson and Moore in the shooting death of Hughes and the attempted murder of Timothy Westfield. The Concerned Citizens for Justice provided the bulk of the documents to the Times Free Press.
During the late-night hours on June 28, 2010, Westfield, Hughes, Cindy Cross and Myra Collier were in the victim's place at British Woods Apartments when a knock at the door brought Hughes outside. Hughes fought with at least two men, and Westfield came to help but was knocked unconscious. When he came to, Hughes was dead, a .45-caliber slug in his temple and a .38-caliber slug in his chest. Westfield had been shot in the hand.
In initial interviews, Westfield said he couldn't identify the masked men but saw a gold car leave the scene. Others, like Cross, said it was a khaki-colored van. The killers also left behind a size 8 1/2 shoe.
Right away, Moore's name entered the picture when Collier told investigators on June 29 that Moore and an ex-boyfriend, Ballou, had been involved in a previously unreported robbery at her place a few weeks earlier. Collier also told investigators she'd heard from "numerous neighbors" that Ballou and Moore were seen driving around the apartment earlier that evening in a "purple Nissan Maxima."
Complicating matters, an anonymous tip came in on June 30, 2010, saying Sean McKinney and a friend asked to use his baby's mother's car "out of the blue" on the night of the homicide. The tip said McKinney was one of the last people to be in contact with Hughes' phone, which had gone missing from the crime scene.
McKinney and his friend weren't charged in the homicide, but attorney Murphy said McKinney and his friend, both associates of Myra Collier's, still played a pivotal role.
When Chattanooga police flagged him down on July 2, 2010, McKinney said Ballou and Moore were involved in a recent robbery — separate from the one Collier mentioned. Police records say he and his friend, William Middlebrooks, then picked Ballou and Moore out during separate photo lineups, giving officers enough evidence to issue warrants for their arrest on July 8, 2010.
The next day around 4 p.m., investigator Michael Wenger wrote that he found Moore sitting in a 1999 grey Nissan Maxima owned by his girlfriend. In other files and pictures used by the state, authorities refer to it as a gold Maxima. Officers said they recovered two cellphones, a black facial wrap, a blue bandana and a pair of size 8 1/2 shoes from the trunk of that vehicle. They also swabbed the door handles and seats for DNA. But those 12 swabs didn't show the presence of Moore's codefendants inside the vehicle, Murphy said, a fact he said prosecutors downplayed at trial because it went against their theory Moore was the getaway driver.
Furthermore, though prosecutors suggested someone wore the wrap during the robbery, Moore's attorneys say he used that wrap to cover his face while he did yardwork at a local church. If Moore's first attorneys had called pastor Peter Bullard at trial, they could have established that fact, Moore's advocates say, but they did not.
What followed with Wenger in 2010 was a nearly 13-hour stay at the police station that's still shrouded in mystery, attorney Murphy said.
A brief from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals says Moore's interview lasted anywhere from four to six hours. Though Wenger said he read Moore his Miranda rights, getting his permission to speak without a lawyer present, Moore's advocates say Moore testified in 2013 that he didn't recognize his signature on a waiver form and never signed it.
Furthermore, between two recordings, there's only about an hour and a half of Moore's interview available, attorney Murphy said. Wenger chalked that up to his recorder dying and having memory issues, but Murphy said in an interview Thursday he didn't buy that explanation.
"By detective Wenger's own admission, he wouldn't start recording until he thought he was going to get something juicy," Murphy said. "So we have no real idea what happened in the other 13 hours."
Murphy said Wenger threatened Moore during the interview. News archives show Wenger was suspended in 2004 for a gas-station beatdown involving multiple officers after a high-speed chase. And in 2006, a federal jury ordered him to pay $26,000 in medical bills for allegedly beating another man.
Wenger said he got a confession from Moore detailing the group's role in the fatal home invasion. The problem, Murphy said, is Moore's trial attorney, Garth Best, couldn't get that full recording from prosecutors until nearly three years later — a week before the trial — and didn't have enough time to prepare.
Around the same time he interviewed Moore in 2010, Wenger also asked a judge to search Myra Collier's cellphone because of "inconsistent statements" she'd made in a follow-up interview. Those records would show Collier on the phone with her uncle, Edwin McPherson, then a Chattanooga police lieutenant who ultimately became captain before retiring earlier this year, before and after the homicide.
Officers were also hunting for another phone belonging to Harold Butler, who police had yet to catch. On July 13, 2010, Wenger received a tip that another man named Antonio Watkins had Butler's phone, and went to retrieve it. But on scene, his superior, McPherson, who'd come over from a second part-time security job, ordered him not to collect the device. At the time, Murphy said, Collier was considered a suspect in setting up the burglary.
Two years later, all four men filed motions saying their cases should be dismissed because the cellphone could have contained helpful evidence state officials had a duty to preserve. Prosecutors countered no evidence suggested there was anything on the phone that gave police a reason to hold it. Though Judge Don Poole suggested the collection process was "improper," he elected to keep the cases going.
Moore and Butler were convicted and received life sentences; Simpson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder and received a 25-year and an eight-year sentence, respectively. Ballou's case was dismissed, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to the unrelated robbery that McKinney and Middlebrooks said he was involved in.
Though Moore tried to appeal his conviction, arguing in part that Poole was wrong for not throwing out the case, attorney Murphy said Moore's appeal lawyer forgot to attach the transcript from a suppression hearing. That meant the Court of Criminal Appeals "had to presume" that Poole's findings of fact were correct without further information at their disposal, hurting Moore's chances at a legitimate appeal, Murphy said.
Murphy said he's subpoenaed alibi witnesses for Monday's hearing, which is before Judge Poole. The goal, he wrote in Moore's post-conviction petition, is to secure a new, fair trial for Moore.
"There is no doubt that the [families] of Bernard Hughes and Timothy Westfield deserve justice," Murphy wrote. "And with the convictions of Harold Butler and John Simpson they have most certainly received it. The prosecution and conviction of Mr. Moore, however, was not justice. From this case's inception, every bit of it has been problematic."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.