By Michael R. Moser
The would-be king of politics who instead gained national attention as Tennessee's most notorious political assassin has completed his prison sentence. Wednesday morning, Byron "Low Tax" Looper was found dead in his prison cell after having only served 13 years of a life without parole sentence.
On an early, fog-shrouded October morning in 1998, beloved and highly respected state Sen. Tommy Burks was shot to death as he sat in his pickup truck on a portion of his farm that lies in Cumberland County. He had risen early to make sure things were in order for an annual visit of school children to his farm. The children always looked forward to picking out a pumpkin to take home, and Sen. Burks always looked forward to hosting their visits.
A conservative Democrat who was a people's politician, Burks served in the Tennessee legislature for 28 years.
Looper immediately was the one and only suspect. He was running on the Republican ticket against Burks and because the murder took place within 30 days of the election, Democrats were prevented from placing another name on the ballot.
Besides, Burks' farm hand Wesley Rex saw Looper fleeing from the scene.
Looper's plan was foiled when Burks' widow, Charlotte Burks, became a write-in candidate and won the election, gaining 98 percent of the votes cast.
She still holds the office.
Looper went on trial in August 2000 for the killing of Tommy Burks aand fter just over two hours of deliberations, Looper was found guilty of first-degree murder and at the request of the Burks family, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
It was one of the biggest media events to ever take place in Cumberland County, with TV satellite trucks from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville and writers from dozens of publications covering portions or all of the legal process.
Wednesday, Criminal Court Judge David Patterson was sitting on the bench at the Cumberland County Justice Center when Deputy District Attorney approached the bench and shared the news that Looper had been found dead. Moments later, Patterson started receiving a host of messages from members of the legal community, bringing the news that one of the darkest chapters in Tennessee politics had come to a close.
Looper, 48, was pronounced dead at 11:10 a.m. in the Morgan County Correctional Complex. As is routine with all deaths of persons in state custody, an autopsy will be performed. In addition, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating the cause of the death.
Earlier Wednesday, guards at the prison performed what Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield described as a "full level cell extraction," and that Looper had to be contained. He was treated at the prison's medical unit and later put in isolation. An hour later, he was found dead.
News of Looper's death rippled across the Cumberland County courtroom like water quietly lapping at a shoreline. Some took the news in disbelief; others with relief.
Patterson in 2000 worked for the District Attorney's Office and was chief architect of the case presented against Looper by state prosecutors. Whatever thoughts he had about the death of Looper he kept to himself. Others did not.
Former state Rep. Henry Fincher of Cookeville, an attorney, told WBIR-Channel 10 in Knoxville, " ... for me personally, it's good riddance to bad rubbish. That man killed my friend. He killed a father, a grandfather, he assassinated a political leader in an attempt to take over."
Fincher added that he realized his feelings might not be the proper thing to have, but he added during the interview, "It's probably not the Christian thing to do to say, you're glad that someone is dead. I'm not glad he's dead but I've got to tell you there's a grim satisfaction in it."
On the other hand, one of Looper's trial attorneys commented, "Upon hearing of the death of my former client Byron (Low Tax) Looper, my thoughts are with the family of the late Senator Tommy Burks, as well as with the Looper family.
"The case was always a tragic one, with the loss of a beloved Tennessee state senator, as well as the conviction and now death of a colorful character in both Georgia and Tennessee politics. The fact that Byron was an unusual, if often difficult, client, is well documented. His family in Georgia deserves to mourn their loss in peace."
Media outlets attempted to contact state Sen. Charlotte Burks but she has declined comment.