Just minutes after the jury was dismissed from the courtroom Thursday and Judge Carroll Ross denied dismissal of two counts of first-degree murder charges, Aaron Lawson was once again warned about his courtroom behavior by the judge.
Assistant District Attorney General Stephen Hatchett had rested the state’s case just after 3 p.m., in the slayings of Charles “Eddie” and Debbie Phillips, who were killed at their Leatha Lane residence on the evening of April 19, 2011.
After the jury had been dismissed for an afternoon break and the judge denied dropping the charges to defense attorney Randy Rogers and his client, Lawson rose from his seat and began to make an exit to a holding cell in a room adjacent to the jury’s deliberation room.
Lawson apparently got close to a court officer and the judge began to assert a warning. Lawson then became verbal and was taken into the holding area where several other court officers and other law enforcement officials placed him in the cell.
Attorney Rogers told Lawson, “Calm down — you are going to scare the jury.”
Order was restored during a lunch break and the jury returned to hear defense testimony, but the day had started with the jury hearing the additional state’s witnesses.
One was Marilyn Grissom who was a neighbor of Eddie Phillips, who was 58, and Debbie Phillips, 54, at the times of their deaths. The couple suffered multiple gunshot wounds while outside their home.
Investigators determined the shootings stemmed from a domestic situation involving the couple’s then 11-year-old granddaughter, Madison Lawson, Aaron Lawson’s biological daughter.
Rogers alleged a small white car had been seen leaving the scene.
Hatchett asked Grissom if she could describe the vehicle she reported seeing drive off at a high rate of speed.
According to Grissom’s testimony, she couldn’t provide a description of the vehicle — but generalized the car as any type of motorized vehicle.
She also told the court the headlights glared and she couldn’t provide a color.
According to reports, Aaron Lawson fled in a burgundy SUV.
He went to his parent’s home on Mouse Creek Road, according to investigators, then took a path toward Highway 58 where he was located the next day at a business owned by some of his family members.
Rogers had alleged earlier in the trial that another person had been involved in the killings.
Investigators found evidence the couple had been out to eat, then returned home to drop off leftovers, then go to a local convenience store to purchase fuel and beer.
The Phillipses returned home sometime between 8 and 8:30 p.m.
Several neighbors in the neighborhood reported hearing fireworks or possible gunshots. Nancy Rowland, who lived next door to the Phillips family, testified she had been at home and heard the noise.
She also told the jury the Phillipses helped her family after her husband had passed away.
Eddie Phillips had worked on her family’s vehicles.
He was a well-known mechanic with a business in neighboring Polk County as well as a former employee of the former Superior Oldsmobile-Cadillac dealership, according to Angie Gill, another acquaintance and friend of the Phillips family.
Gill testified she had seen the couple at the local restaurant just before their murders.
“Did they appear intoxicated?” Hatchett asked.
Gill answered “no” to the question and said she just spoke with them for a few minutes.
According to testimony from Bradley County detective J.P. Allman, he was in charge of attempting to track the cellphone owned by Aaron Lawson.
Allman worked with the FBI to make the attempt, just after the Phillipses’ bodies were located.
Evidentiary photos of Lawson’s SUV indicated a cellphone case was in the passenger side of the vehicle.
Allman testified Lawson had dismantled the cellphone, removing the battery, which would make tracking the device impossible.
After his capture in Hamilton County, investigators began their process of collecting additional evidence such as gunshot residue from Lawson.
Detective Shaunda Efaw performed that duty.
“Did Aaron Lawson ask you if officials could tell what caliber of gun was fired from GSR evidence?” Hatchett asked Efaw.
Efaw told Lawson she was there to collect any GSR which may be present.
“I do collection. The lab does analyzation.”
“Had you asked him anything about a gun of any caliber?” Hatchett asked Efaw.
She replied, “No.”
Officials determined through their investigation that Lawson had dismantled the weapon used in the shootings and scattered the pieces along the route toward Hamilton County.
The couple was reportedly shot with a 9 mm weapon, according to forensic pathologist, Dr. Christopher Lochmuller of the Regional Forensic Center in Knoxville.
Lochmuller performed the autopsies on the bodies of Eddie and Debbie Phillips.
According to Lochmuller’s testimony, Eddie Phillips suffered three shots — one to the flank (side), left chest and upper back.
One of the shots would have caused paralysis as it cut through the spinal cord.
According to Lochmuller, the shots’ trajectories were “back to front.”
“Would that injury have killed him?” Hatchett asked regarding the back wound.
Lochmuller said, “He probably wouldn’t have survived. He would not have been able to walk at that point.”
Hatchett also asked Lochmuller about the flank wound.
“Would he have survived?”
“Without medical attention — no,” Lochmuller said.
The chest wound showed nothing significant to the cause of death.
Lochmuller told the court the manner of death was homicide and cause of death was from multiple gunshot wounds.
Hatchett also questioned the doctor about a possible altercation prior to the shooting.
Rogers contended earlier in the trial that a scuffle had possibly ensued, alluding to a self-defense situation regarding his client.
Lochmuller said when Eddie Phillips fell to the ground it caused an injury to his face.
“When his spinal cord was severed, he lost control — lost blood pressure and possibly lost consciousness,” Lochmuller explained.
Regarding Debbie Phillips’ autopsy, Lochmuller said she also died from multiple gunshot wounds — one to the right wrist, upper right arm and one to the back of the neck.
The wrist wound was minor, according to Lochmuller.
The upper arm wound was more significant and fractured the bone, causing the bone to protrude from beneath the skin.
Gunshot residue (stippling) was found on Debbie Phillips’ arm and face, indicating the weapon was fired between 10 inches and two feet from her body.
Lochmuller told the jury her head had been turned and laying on her left shoulder when that shot was fired.
She would also have been paralyzed after that wound, according to his testimony. The wound path was traced into the shoulder, where the bullet fragmented and part also went into her left arm.
She had also suffered a jaw fracture.
“She dropped where she was and possibly fractured her jaw,” Lochmuller said.
“Nothing there indicated an assault,” he said.
“Was there any evidence of a violent fight or struggle?” Hatchett asked.
Lochmuller said nothing he found in the autopsy would indicate that.
Rogers questioned Lochmuller about the bruising and abrasions to Eddie Phillips’ face.
Lochmuller said the abrasions were minor.
There were also other abrasions and small cuts on Eddie Phillips’ body.
On re-direct examination, Hatchett asked Lochmuller if he knew what Eddie Phillips did for a living.
The doctor told Hatchett that he didn’t.
Hatchett explained he was a mechanic and that any injuries to his hands possibly came from his job.
Lochmuller didn’t photograph Eddie Phillips’ hands during the autopsy.
“If there were injuries to his hands that may indicate a fight, would you have taken photos?” asked Hatchett.
“Yes,” answered Lochmuller.
The defense began its case by presenting testimony from attorneys who had represented Aaron Lawson during custodial and visitation disputes.
Attorney Prince Miller was first on the stand and explained he was hired to establish that Aaron Lawson was Madison’s father.
Miller said tha fact was established after DNA testing was performed shortly after her birth.
“The delay in seeing this little girl was due to the process,” Miller said.
Lawson filed visitation and support paperwork which was delayed in the court system.
Miller’s notes indicated Lawson was arrested on a theft charge, which also slowed the process.
Lawson requested visitation with his parents being the supervisors.
Miller and Lawson agreed Miller would stop his representation in 2001.
“He was almost obsessive with parent rights,” Miller said.
“He was always prompt for hearings and respectful to my staff,” Miller added.
Attorney Jerry Hoffer also represented Lawson.
“He wanted more time with his daughter,” Hoffer said.
According to testimony earlier this week from Madison’s mother Priscilla Phillips, the Easter weekend visitation schedule prompted the events which took place April 19, 2011.
The two had ongoing disputes regarding Madison’s visits.
The Phillipses were also involved in the disputes, according to testimony.
Hoffer indicated during his testimony that at one point, Priscilla had been served with a contempt of court complaint, alleging Lawson wasn’t getting to see Madison through the agreement.
“Would you agree that criminal charges can complicate parental matters?” Hatchett asked.
Hoffer answered, “Yes.”
“A citizen who is not breaking the law and getting criminal charges makes it easier — correct?” asked Hatchett.
“Hoffer again answered yes.
Hoffer described Lawson as being “intense.”
“He wasn’t angry at me, but more about the situation — frustrated. The system can be slow because of rules and procedures,” Hoffer explained.
“Would he express this?” Hatchett asked.
“Yes,” said Hoffer.
Bradley County Court Clerk Gayla Miller testified for the defense and read the orders and filings made by attorneys during the past years regarding Aaron Lawson’s parental visitation rights filings.
She cited at least nine filings.
The defense’s case continues today.
Trial began Tuesday.