More than 20 homicide cases could be disposed of in court in the 12th Judicial District by next summer, ranking the coming year's death-related criminal docket among the largest the district has seen over such a short period.
"It's not the worst I've ever seen but it's high," 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said last week. Taylor has been the district attorney since 1992 and has been a prosecutor since 1980.
"It's a very substantial homicide docket," he said. "Some of these cases are still in the pipeline, under investigation pending indictment. We're setting cases now in June and July ."
Is there an explanation?
"If there is, I can't put my finger on it," Taylor said. "I don't know why we've got so many homicide cases."
Across the 12th Judicial District's six counties — Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie and Rhea — as many as 26 defendants could find themselves before a jury, depending on how some ongoing investigations sort out in the next couple of months. Taylor said at least a handful of the 20 upcoming cases are on vehicular homicide charges, while the rest are homicide cases that have concluded or are expected to conclude soon.
The hefty caseload is also on 12th Judicial District Public Defender Jeff Harmon's radar.
While the public defender's office doesn't represent all the criminal cases on the docket, Harmon's office typically handles between half and two-thirds of the cases.
"It's a sort of wax-and-wane thing," Harmon said. Tennessee's public defenders are the first default appointed lawyer for indigent defendants, he said, while other defendants can afford private lawyers.
"We have plenty of clients, I'll put it that way," he said of the coming year.
Harmon said his office and Taylor's will kick off 2019 with two homicide trials, back to back.
"We are going to have a busy year ... " he said.
Marion County has the lion's share of the 20 or so cases with nine, followed by Franklin County with two upcoming murder cases and two cases still under investigation pending grand jury presentations, Taylor said. Bledsoe, Grundy and Sequatchie each have two indicted murder cases and Rhea has one.
"Statistically in recent years, we seem to have more violent crime — especially homicides — in Marion than the other five counties," Taylor said. The FBI's 2017 Crime in the United States ranks Tennessee among the top states in the country for violent crime, Taylor noted.
"I think that would be consistent with what we're seeing in this district," he said.
Taylor offered an estimated run-down on the homicide cases he expects to come up through mid-2019, starting with Marion.
Along with several vehicular homicide cases in the coming months in Marion, Landon Turner — 17 at the time of his initial charges that have since been transferred to adult court — will be tried in the 2016 death of his girlfriend's 2-year-old son, Zayne Harper.
A second Marion child murder case likely to go to trial in coming months stems from the arrest in August of Jonathan Beaumonte in the death of an 11-month-old.
Cody Waggoner is set for a February trial in Marion in the 2016 death of 23-year-old Bradley Aaron Powell, who had been reported missing by his family in December 2016.
Kordell Griffin will be among those on the 2019 Marion homicide docket charged in the March slaying of 19-year-old Buford E. Reyna Jr., whose body was found in a South Pittsburg home.
Johnny Watts will likely have a trial date set soon on a charge of New Year's Day reckless homicide in the shooting death of 25-year-old Brandon Shrum. Watts was not initially charged at the time of the incident but was charged later after the grand jury heard the case.
Another of the district's most recent high-profile homicide cases arose out of Bledsoe County last November in the double ax murder of a mother and daughter — 46-year-old Deanna Lawrence and 24-year-old Dedra Lawrence. Robert Joe Whittenburg will go to trial May 7, 2019.
Three people were charged in the April slaying of 30-year-old Thomas Rogers, whose body was found on Valley View Road in Bledsoe County. NaKayla Sullivan was arrested in April and, in July, Marcelino Leal and Keiven Lee Bundy were charged in Rogers' death.
After Franklin County veteran James Leon Wood's body was found in January buried in his own backyard, Wood's wife, Glenna Yvonne Newingham Wood; her daughter, Mikayla Danielle Harmon Poole; Poole's husband, Grant Matthew Poole; and family friend Shawn Michael Hampton each were charged in his death. Two others also are charged as accessories in the slaying, and the homicide portion of the case is expected to go to trial in the coming year.
Taylor said there were two other potential homicide cases still under investigation in Franklin County. Both are pending a presentation to the grand jury soon, and if indicted, could go to trial in 2019. One of those two cases is linked to the discovery of David Edward Steele's body in October 2017.
Jamie Nunley and Donavan Hargis were charged in November 2017 in the death of 35-year-old Tracy City resident Dylan Winton, whose remains were found in October 2017 in a remote area near Altamont. Winton had been shot four times.
Also arrested in November 2017, Daniel Chandler faces a January trial in the slaying of his wife, 26-year-old Samantha Chandler, whose beaten body was found dumped in a remote wooded area south of Gruetli-Laager in 2016. Autopsy results showed she died of blunt-force trauma to her head.
Sequatchie County's 2019 homicide trial docket will likely include Jerri Lynn Sanders, charged in the October 2017 stabbing death of her 61-year-old husband, John Wayne Sanders. When arrested, officials said she had been on probation from a conviction for having used a knife on her husband in 2016.
In a second Sequatchie County case, Paul D. Coffman Jr. was charged in the Sept. 8 shooting death of 21-year-old Logan Lepard, whose body was found lying partially in a ditch on Henson Gap Road. Investigators said Coffman shot Lepard several times with a .9-mm handgun.
In Rhea County, Patricia Kaye Wilkey has a June trial date in the April 2017 shooting death of her husband, 51-year-old Thomas Richard Wilkey Jr., whose body was found wrapped in plastic garbage bags and tape at their Walkertown Road home on Dayton Mountain.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.