Family seeks justice after teen’s accused killer roamed free

Cholly Harris (left) was allegedly gunned down last year by Denzell Crawford (right). Despite there being no question that Crawford killed the teen, he walked free for nearly six months — and allegedly committed several other crimes — before authorities were finally able to file charges.

It’s taken half a year for the man accused of shooting and killing 19-year-old Cholly Harris to face criminal charges in connection with the teenager’s death.

According to Cholly’s family, those months were full of mourning, confusion and even fear as his killer continued to walk the streets of Knoxville and commit crimes with what seemed like impunity. 

On March 21, however, the man accused of killing Cholly — 29-year-old Denzell Crawford — finally appeared before Knox County Criminal Court Judge Steve Sword to answer a charge of voluntary manslaughter. It had been nearly six months to the day since the teen was gunned down near Morningside Park in East Knoxville.

Cholly was one of the 51 men, women and children to be killed in Knoxville and Knox County in 2021, which was the community’s deadliest year since records have been kept. While many of those killings can be traced back to drugs or gang activity, Cholly apparently died while confronting Crawford over allegations that he was abusing the teen’s nephews and nieces. 

Even if he’s convicted of the manslaughter charge, Crawford might not spend much time behind bars. Unlike first- or second-degree murder, the manslaughter charge is only a Class C felony that normally carries a three- to 15-year prison sentence. 

At this point, however, that would still be more of a punishment than the teen’s family had feared he would receive. 

“It’s been a very long six months,” said Cholly’s mother, Lateshia Hall, after Crawford’s arrest.

Hard Knox Wire has attempted to contact Crawford several times since the shooting to get his side of the story, but he has never responded. Leslie Jeffress, his defense attorney, declined to comment on the case.

“They … left us to take matters into our own hands”

According to Cholly’s surviving relatives, Cholly saw himself as the protector of the family and someone who would “give the shirt off his back” to help anyone who needed it. 

They say he died while living up to his convictions because the shooting took place during a dispute over the safety of Cholly’s nieces and nephews on September 20, 2021.

Cholly’s sister was romantically involved with Crawford, who has a lengthy criminal history dating back to 2012 that includes several felony convictions. The couple shared a home on Hazen Street with her three children, and the deadly incident was triggered by the eldest child’s complaint that they were being abused. 

Crawford denied harming the children, and officials from the Department of Children’s Services have refused to say whether they launched an investigation into the abuse allegations. Hall maintains the abuse had been reported and officials were looking into it but no action had been taken. 

“All this was over [Cholly] trying to protect his nephew from the guy that killed him,” said Ladarius Carter, Cholly’s brother. “They basically left us to take matters into our own hands.”

On the night of the shooting, Hall got a phone call from the house on Hazen Street. Cholly and his brother were there when the call came in, and they could all hear the children screaming in the background. 

“Cholly walked in the house and heard the same thing I was hearing — a 10-year-old screaming ‘get off me, get off me,’ so he and my other son jumped in the car,” explained Hall. 

They rushed to the home on Hazen Street to find out if the children needed help. Their sister tried to explain away the situation and reassured everyone that her children were not in any danger.

“That was the end of the conversation,” said Hall. 

It wasn’t, however, the end of the confrontation, as Cholly was shot dead soon afterward.

“I don’t know if she said something that triggered him, or what, but they claim that my son, [Cholly], pulled a gun,” Hall said.

Crawford was questioned by KPD investigators after the shooting but was then allowed to walk free. Hall claims she was told by investigators that the shooting was initially being treated as a case of self-defense and that Crawford couldn’t even by prosecuted for possessing a firearm despite his status as a convicted felon.

Officials from both KPD and the Knox County District Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the specifics of the case with Hard Knox Wire.

Guns and heroin before manslaughter

The ensuing months were unspeakably hard for Cholly’s family, who had to endure several holidays without his presence.

“He enjoyed family functions, that was his biggest thing. He always liked to know if I was gonna cookout on whatever little holiday,” recalled his mother. “Thanksgiving was real rough because that was his biggest holiday. He always loved those Honey Baked Hams, and I would always have to cook two or three of them because he would eat one by himself. He and I would always fight over who gets the last deviled egg.” 

It appeared to Cholly’s family that Crawford was inexplicably being given a pass for killing their loved one. In fact, Crawford was arrested twice by KPD over the following months on felony charges unrelated to Cholly’s shooting and still managed to avoid spending an appreciable amount of time behind bars.

On December 29, for instance, Crawford was arrested after KPD officers allegedly found a loaded handgun as well as suspected marijuana and heroin inside the vehicle he was using. 

He was arrested again on February 1, this time following a traffic stop off Interstate 275. In addition to learning that Crawford was driving on a suspended license, the officers allegedly found 15 baggies of heroin and a set of digital scales in the vehicle. The officers said that he “stated that he does sell heroin sometimes but is also a casual user of it,” according to court records.

Crawford was initially charged with felony possession of Schedule 1 drugs for resale along with traffic offenses, but that charge was later dismissed after a preliminary hearing in General Sessions Court, records show.

In the meantime, KPD investigators and Knox County prosecutors were continuing their inquiry into Cholly’s killing. On March 10, a Knox County grand jury finally issued an indictment that charged Crawford with voluntary manslaughter, unlawful possession of a weapon and employing a firearm during a dangerous felony. 

Since them, Crawford has been jailed in lieu of $250,000 bond. His next court appearance is set for May 6, and his trial is tentatively set for October 3.

“He left this world a better place”

It’s not just Cholly’s family who says he’ll be missed. 

The young man made a deep impression on many of those he interacted with during his short life. For instance, his former kindergarten teacher at Green Magnet Academy, Erica Wilkerson, wrote a letter to his mother expressing how much she was affected by the news of Cholly’s passing. 

“I can’t believe I’m writing this right now. I imagined when I was old and gray, someone would convince 40-year-old Cholly to stand up and speak at my retirement party,” Wilkerson wrote. “I’m heartbroken that he will never get the chance.” 

Wilkerson described Cholly as a kind child who kept his class in high spirits, took time to get to know his peers and teachers and acted like a big brother to kids who needed extra support. 

“This is the Cholly that I remember. Even in his short 19-years of life, he left this world a better place. He made me into a better teacher, human, and mother. I am more patient, kind and understanding just by having him in my life,” wrote Wilkerson.

With Cholly gone, his mother says she simply wants the community to know that he was a good kid.

“He was very family-oriented, he loved his family. Being the man of the house and, you know, even leading up to the end he was a big protector of the family,” she said.

“Even though he was very independent and often went out and did his own thing, he considered himself the man of the house. He took care of himself, and he always looked after the family. Whether it was me, his dad, his brothers… He was always there to just help you no matter what the situation was.”

Megan Sadler can be reached at

J.J. Stambaugh contributed to this report. 

Published on April 4, 2022.