Mother's Day hasn't had the same joy since Pat Brown's son, Michael Brown, was gunned down just before that national observance on May 11, 2006. She is suing two Roane County brothers for $5 million in a wrongful death lawsuit being heard here.
"Mother's Day weekend ... I guess that was my present, losing a child," Brown tearfully told a Cumberland County jury empaneled Monday to hear evidence in the case. Brown added, "I died that night, except for the pain."
The two brothers — Rocky and Clifford Leon Houston — didn't hear the mother's testimony, however, because they failed to appear and defend themselves from the lawsuit. Because the brothers had earlier filed a response to the suit, the trial must go on — with or without them.
Rocky Houston told a Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter this week, "We fear for our lives. I'd be afraid to go up there."
The Houston brothers were tried separately in Criminal Court in Roane County for killing Deputy Bill Jones and his friend and ride-along, Michael Brown, but three times, jurors in that county failed to convict either brother.
This put Brown's attorney, Mitch Ferguson of Murfreesboro, in an awkward position. He has never tried a case without someone representing the other side. Circuit Court Judge Amy Hollars has never tried a case with only one side present. And her father, retired Judge John Turnbull, an observer in the courtroom, said it had never happened to him.
The first day of what is expected to be a three-day trial went fast, without cross examination or objections to testimony.
It took just over an hour to pick a jury of 14 persons. If no jurors become sick or otherwise cannot finish hearing the case, two will be designated as alternates once the case is presented and will be dismissed.
The only witnesses to testify the first day were Brown and Roane County Sheriff's Investigator John French.
Brown, born in the Cumberland County community of Grassy Cove, has lived most of her life outside Rockwood in Roane County.
She testified that on May 11, 2006, her oldest son, Michael, was in his room reading when Bill Jones called him that day and asked if he was going to ride with him that evening. Michael Brown got ready and went out the door around 3 p.m., carrying his mom's last words to him: "Be careful. I love you," she testified.
Around 6 p.m., she heard a police scanner in another room that had "went crazy. I heard them call Bill Jones. Then I heard someone say officer down, officer down."
She rushed to the scene in the Ten Mile community in what folks in Roane County call "South of the River." She asked anyone who would listen, "Is my son dead?" All she was told in response was, "It doesn't look good."
She was then taken to the Roane County Sheriff's Office where she and the Jones family were kept. It wasn't until around 9 p.m. that someone officially confirmed her worst fears.
She told the jury that her son had loved law enforcement work, and had worked at the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department years ago, prior to serving as a volunteer deputy in Roane County. His goal of being a full-time police officer ended with a stroke in 1997.
"There was nothing wrong with his mind, but he couldn't be on a police force anymore." Instead, he was forced to go on disability because of the lingering affects of the stroke.
She testified that as far as she knew, the Houston brothers did not know her son, other than possibly knowing that he often rode with Jones when Jones was on patrol.
She called the loss of her son, "a hurt that nobody can know." She testified that the lawsuit was not about the money because nothing replaces losing a child. Brown said she just wished the Houston brothers were present to hear of a mother's agony. "There's no getting over it," she testified.
The investigator testified that it is his belief, based on witness statements, Rocky and Leon Houston were standing on opposite ends of the porch when Jones and Brown arrived to serve a capias warrant on Rocky for failure to appear in court.
Both left the porch and approached the patrol car from opposite ends. "They (Jones and Brown) were ambushed. They (the officers) were in the kill zone," French testified.
French noted that a .12-gauge shotgun was mounted on the cage directly behind the front seat, and an M1 rifle that was still mounted in the trunk of the patrol car. Other weapons were also found in the trunk of the patrol car.
The jury was shown an Egyptian-made, Maadi assault rifle that French testified "was made to use against people." He found bullet jackets that were copper jacketed for the purpose of penetrating the target at which the bullets were shot.
Two clips, that held multiple rounds, were taped together in a fashion used by the military for rapid loading. He said Rocky Houston was armed with this weapon.
Leon Houston, French testified, was armed with a .45 caliber Glock handgun.
He countered claims from the Houstons that the officers had come to harm them.
"Bill Jones was a Marine and an Army Ranger. He was an excellent shot, the best on the department. If he wanted to take those two out, he would not have gotten that close," French testified.
French testified he arrived on the scene so quickly that a fuel pump on the patrol car that had been struck by a bullet was still hissing. Even though the key to the patrol car was in the on position, the vehicle had quit running.
French testified he found Brown face down in the road, his feet still in the patrol car. He found Jones still in the driver's seat, slumped to the right.
When the lawsuit was filed, the Houstons indicated to the court that they would serve as their own attorneys, and have since filed various hand-written motions.
When a Roane County judge stepped down from the case, the Tennessee Supreme Court asked Judge Hollars to hear the case, and she later granted a motion for a change of venue to Cumberland County because of the massive media coverage of the case from the Knoxville market as well as the Roane County media.
The Houstons opposed moving the trial to Crossville, arguing the judge did not have the authority to do so. Later, the Houstons filed a motion stating they did not oppose moving the trial to Crossville, but still wanted a jury of Roane Countians to hear the case.
Tuesday morning, TBI Special Agent Dan Royce was expected to testify, and Pat Brown may retake the witness stand, Ferguson told the court as it convened Monday evening.