DA clears cops, releases videos

District Attorney General Charme Allen discusses the shooting at Austin-East that claimed the life of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. Photo by Jennifer Stambaugh.

Embattled Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen released bodycam videos and other evidence gathered from the TBI’s investigation into the April 12 shooting death of Anthony Thompson Jr. at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

She wasn’t happy about it, though. 

“There is a moral part of me that says something is fundamentally wrong with the fact I spent four hours with a grieving family who begged me not to release these tapes today,” Allen said. “Be that as it may, I am going to stand by my word and release them today.”

Thompson died during a struggle with four Knoxville Police Departments officers: Officer Jonathon Clabough, Lieutenant Stanley Cash, Officer Brian Baldwin, and student resource officer (SRO) Adam Willson.

Allen cleared all four officers of any criminal wrongdoing for the shooting.  She said that Clabough, who was the only officer to fire his weapon, was legally defending himself and his fellow officers.

The officers remain on administrative leave, which is normal following a shooting. Willson, who was shot in one of his legs, has been discharged from the hospital and is recovering at home.

Anthony Thompson Jr.

Attorney Don Bosch, who is representing all the officers except Willson, relayed a statement from his clients after they received word that they’d been cleared.

“We appreciate the hard work of the office of Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in coming to a prompt resolution of this tragic incident,” the officers said. 

“We believe in the importance of public trust and accountability. We look forward to returning to our duties and continuing to serve the city of Knoxville once again.”

Although they won’t face criminal charges for the shooting, the officers may still face repercussions for Thompson’s death. Some of Thompson’s relatives, for instance, have retained famed civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and have said they plan to file a civil lawsuit.

Also, the officers are still the subjects of an ongoing internal affairs investigation into whether they violated any departmental rules or procedures. In fact, a KPD spokesman cited the internal affairs probe as the reason he couldn’t provide much additional information late Wednesday.

“We probably won’t be able to answer some pressing questions until the IA review is completed,” KPD spokesman Scott Erland said.

The decision to clear the officers angered many police critics and activists, triggering yet another round of protests. 

More than 100 people gathered at KPD headquarters and downtown. Protesters waved “Black Lives Matter” banners, chanted slogans and used their cars to create a traffic deadlock on Gay Street. 

KPD Officer Jonathon Clabough, who fired the two shots that killed Anthony Thompson Jr. and wounded Officer Adam Willson.

KPD Officer Adam Willson. Source: KPD

 Allen’s decision to release the footage came after nine days of steadily building pressure from the administration of Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas, three of the four officers involved in the shooting, the local NAACP and numerous justice activists. On Tuesday, a coalition of Knoxville’s news organizations — including Hard Knox Wire — went to court in support Mayor Kincannon’s efforts to release the footage over Allen’s objections. 

Local TV stations carried Allen’s presentation live as she worked through the evidence piece-by-piece and explained in detail how a domestic violence incident involving two 17-year-old students at Austin-East turned into an officer-involved shooting. Allen released videos from both the officers’ bodycams and security cameras mounted throughout the school and grounds; photographs; an E-911 call; Thompson’s autopsy report and ballistics tests from the three rounds fired during the encounter. 

The evidence painted a detailed picture of what happened on April 12 and answered many — if not all — of the questions surrounding the case. 

It also raised some new ones. 

For instance, Thompson wasn’t legally allowed to possess either the Glock 9mm pistol or the   loaded, 18-round spare “extended capacity magazine” he was carrying. When asked where the child may have gotten the weapon, Allen replied, “There are other charges that may come out of this case dealing with collateral issues.”

Also, Allen stressed that she was looking at both the shooting itself and whether the officers failed to render aid appropriately as Thompson lay on the restroom floor, handcuffed and bleeding to death.

The round that hit Thompson passed through both of the child’s lungs and his heart, Allen said, and there was nothing the officers — or anyone — could have done to save his life. 

When asked about what can be done to combat the gun violence that has killed five Austin-East students this semester, Allen didn’t hesitate to place the blame on the easy availability of firearms.

“My belief is there are a lot of young kids in that community that are carrying weapons around,” she said. “I believe there are way too many guns out there and I think it’s way too commonplace, and I think as long as those guns are out there we’re going to continue to see exactly what we’re seeing. I think it’s scary…. we cannot keep losing our youth to gun violence.”

KPD Officer Brian Baldwin
KPD Lt. Stanley Cash

Allen didn’t try to hide her frustration with the overall situation and the pressure that she, her staff and the TBI agents assigned to the case have been under. 

At times, she indicated that she didn’t think it was necessarily legal for her to release the evidence. At other points, her comments focused on the dilemmas she felt when dealing with Thompson’s family. 

“I will tell you that I have just spent four hours with this family, and I will tell you that was a painful, long, agonizing four hours for that family where we talked about the death of their 17-year-old son,” Allen said. “And the one thing that family asked me not to do, the only thing that family asked me not to do, was to release these tapes today.”

Allen stressed that she’d promised last week to release the evidence once the TBI probe was completed and she’d had a chance to decide if charges were warranted. She explained that releasing the videos without the other evidence would have painted an incomplete or misleading picture of what happened in the Austin-East restroom.

Anthony Thompson Jr.

“There have been media, there have been community leaders, there have been politicians and there have been activist groups that have all demanded answers,” Allen said. “Which they are entitled to. You’re all entitled to it. But everybody has demanded those answers right now, and so I do not think that my correct response would have been to immediately release only part of the evidence in this case.”

She added: “That would have potentially tainted the criminal prosecution and not only that I think it would have allowed the community to make rushed decisions based on incomplete evidence.” 

Allen said that it’s important this type of situation doesn’t arise again and she intends to speak with the Board of Professional Responsibility, legislators and others to clarify or perhaps change the laws governing the release of TBI files. 

“What has happened in this case has not been good for anybody,” she said.

For decades, once a TBI investigation was completed the file was considered “confidential” and not subject to the public records law. This is considerably different than what happens to the files of other law enforcement agencies in the state. The closed investigative files of municipal and county law enforcement agencies are considered public record once a case has been adjudicated, but the TBI (which, among other responsibilities, often investigates public corruption cases) has traditionally only released information when it wanted to. 

A 2017 change in state law, however, made the investigative files of TBI probes into officer-involved shootings public records once a case was closed. It also gave district attorney generals the right to “disclose all or part of the investigative record to the public prior to the record becoming a public record as provided in this section.”

Shorty after Allen concluded her presentation a second press conference was convened on another floor in the City-Council Building to allow Mayor Kincannon a chance to discuss the case.

“It’s a hard day in our city,” Kincannon said, adding that her own daughter is Thompson’s age. 

“Watching the video, my heart breaks again for Anthony,” she said. “His life matters, and he is gone too soon. My heart breaks for his family, and those who loved him. No parent should have to bury their child, and my prayers are with them as they continue to mourn. 

“My heart breaks for the young man who witnessed a friend’s death — and experienced a trauma no young person should have to experience. It breaks for the officers, whose lives are forever changed, as well.”

Mayor Indya Kincannon. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

Kincannon reinforced the same message she repeated during her administration’s legal push to have the videos released. “Transparency matters, accountability matters,” she said. 

Although she had disagreed with Allen about the release’s timing, she agreed with the DA’s ruling. “Eleven seconds. Eleven seconds where they saw a gun and they thought one of their fellow officers was shot. They thought the safety of themselves and others were at risk. So, yeah, I think those conclusions were fair.”

For all their differences of opinion, however, Allen and Kincannon seemed to be entirely in agreement on one point — there are far too many guns on the streets of Knoxville. 

“Too many people are using guns to solve their problems, and that must change here locally and across the state and across our nation,” Kincannon said. 

Police Chief Thomas issued the following statement late Wednesday:  “I want to express my gratitude to the Office of Attorney General Charme Allen and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for their tireless attention to this case and expediency in the completion of a comprehensive, independent investigation. 

“I am thankful that those investigative efforts determined that the actions of our officers, under intense and unpredictable circumstances, were justified and they were cleared of any wrongdoing. My hope is that the release of the evidence in its totality provides a sense of clarity and answers the pressing questions that the community deserved to hear regarding the circumstances that led to this event. 

“With that being said, this was an incredibly tragic and traumatic experience for everyone involved. Lives have been irrevocably altered by this event. My thoughts are with the family of Anthony Thompson Jr., to whom I extend my most heartfelt condolences and sympathies. My thoughts are also with our officers, who will carry the burden and trauma of this for the rest of their lives.”

Police tape seals off Austin-East Magnet High School after Monday’s shootout between a student and a Knoxville police officer. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

 J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on April 22, 2021