After the conclusion of the cases against Henry Burrell and Zakkawanda Moss last week, The Times asked District Attorney General Robert Carter and Lincoln County Sheriff Murray Blackwelder, the community’s two top law enforcement officers, to address several questions. Following are their responses.
1) In looking at this case and recalling it years from now, what do you believe will stick with you for the rest of your lives?
Carter: “What had the largest impact of me were the victims’ family members. These are individuals who had not only lost a family member but were reminded everyday how they were murdered. Despite the loss and brutality, they remained cooperative, supportive and motivated throughout the investigation and prosecution.”
Blackwelder: “The pure disregard for human life and the brutality involved. In the Shaffer case, I will never forget telling a man his 16-year-old son was dead when I had a 16-year-old son at home.
“In this case, I had to tell one of my employee’s her 21-year-old daughter was dead, and I had a 21-year-old daughter at home. I couldn’t imagine someone coming out and giving me that kind of news, yet I had to do that.”
2) How would you describe the impact of dealing with a horrific event such as this on you and your staffs?
Carter: “The impact on the DA’s office from this case and others like it is due to the mass of evidence and legal issues … It becomes a full-time focus, simply to assist in that case at that time. As you know, this investigation was lengthy and the amount of evidence we had to collect from law enforcement and organize was substantial. Not only did we have to do that, but we also needed to present to a jury in a manner that was not overly complicated. We keep how these victims died always in our thoughts, but at the end of the day, we have criminals that did something horrific and need to be prosecuted.”
Blackwelder: “These events have taken a huge toll on everyone involved. Although we must take care of business, we are all human and family-oriented people. We have to work through it in order to get justice for the victims.”
3) What’s the one thing you think the general public should understand, and perhaps doesn’t, about this case?
Carter: First, I am certainly pleased with the result of both cases. I feel the Moss trial was directed and presented exceptionally well by the prosecution. I cannot stress to you how fortunate the citizens of the 17th Judicial District are to have Ann Filer, Holly Eubanks, Mike Randles and Melissa Simmons by my side. We believe we received the correct verdict, and the jury deliberated for less then two hours.
“Second, I have received a few questions as to why these were not death penalty cases. The answer to that is complicated. You can’t simply look at the actual crime itself and determine whether it’s a death penalty case. Instead, it is imperative for the state of Tennessee to consider the whole case before seeking the death penalty. For example, the amount of evidence, both direct and/or circumstantial, the amount of real or tangible evidence and the witnesses that may present their evidence, their ability and willingness to do so, whether a piece of evidence is legally admissible in court during a trial, whether a individual can be certified as an expert or not, the cause or motive for the crime, any legal defenses to the crime, any legal or factual defense to the crime and the victims’ role in the events that lead to the crime. You must consider the whole case, not just the crime itself. We don’t have death penalty crimes, we have death penalty cases.
“In any case, we have to make a determination about the strength and weaknesses of our witnesses. Obviously, you would need very strong eyewitnesses with direct evidence and information about the crime. Getting that is very difficult is a case like this, where all of the eyewitnesses were murdered. We don’t have video of the murders or photographs of the acts taking place, Instead, we have witnesses and evidence that is circumstantial before and after the murders.
“As the district attorney general, I considered the amount of circumstantial evidence, lack of eyewitnesses and the cost to taxpayers and concluded that the prudent decision was not to risk receiving a not guilty verdict for a death penalty case because I knew we could keep these defendants out of society for the rest of their lives with consecutive life sentences.”
Murray: “I, like many others, would rather have seen them put to death, but sometimes that is not the best answer, depending on the facts of the case. The one thing I don’t think the public understands about cases of this magnitude is when they first happen, there is very limited information that we are willing to release because at that point anything we say could jeopardize the outcome. That is why there was such little information given out at the beginning of this case. I think the end result does show that we did in-fact have it under control.”
6) Is there anything else you would want to add?
Carter: “Considering everything, I am very pleased with the outcome of these cases. I want to thank my staff, and I would also like to thank the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, especially Murray Blackwelder and Investigator Joyce McConnell; Fayetteville Police Department, especially Investigator Adam Eubanks; TBI agents and lab staff; the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, especially Investigators Charles Berry and Brent Patterson; the Madison County District Attorney’s Office; Judge Durard; and the victims’ families.”
Murray: “I would like to thank all of the other agencies for all of the support and hard work they put into helping bring this case to the desired end. I would also like to thank District Attorney Carter and his staff for an outstanding job of putting together and prosecuting this case. It goes to show that working together we can overcome huge obstacles. While this case was a bad memory in their minds, we were working hundreds of hours trying to put all of the pieces together in order to go to trial. I might not have been very forthcoming with information but on the very first night I did a news conference and stated that we did not believe the people were in any danger. Instead, the social media called me an ‘idiot’ because they assumed they had the answers. These two killers were, in fact, in custody within 48 hours. I can assure you that we would not have made that statement if any of us had thought you the public were in any danger.”