Editors note: This the first story we’ve published by our newest correspondent, Rick Held. Although he’s got a respectable amount of journalism under his belt, he’d never covered a criminal trial before last week, much less a murder case. Well, when Rick proposed this story we jumped at it, partly because it’s an interesting case but also because we wanted to find out what a seasoned reporter would “see” when thrust into an environment they were unfamiliar with.
We couldn’t have been happier with the result, and we’re proud that it’s going to be Rick’s debut story for Hard Knox Wire….
A Mother’s Trial
By Rick Held
“It’s been nine years.”
Over three days in the thoroughly Covid-protected Division I courtroom in Knox County Criminal Court last week, perhaps no muffled remark was repeated more frequently than this one, through the facemasks of most of the courtroom’s occupants. It issued forth regularly from Judge Scott Green; the lawyers on both sides; the twelve eyewitnesses; the medical examiner, the responding KPD officer, and the KPD detective in charge of investigating the murder of Christopher Melton on July 3, 2012.
Nobody wanted to escape the truth of that remark more than Chris’s mother, Trish Melton.
Nine years since Trish’s 19-year-old son was shot in the back of the head at close range by Jamar Frazier, who was 25 years old at the time. Nine years since members of Black Crime Family, a self-described rap group and known street gang, beat and battered Trish’s son as a prelude to his execution. Nine years since he was chased in broad daylight into a patch of South Knoxville woods by Frazier, the group’s leader, who later admitted to shooting Chris as the young man was running away.
Trish Melton first re-lived her son’s last violent minutes in exquisite and repetitive detail in 2016, as she sat through the multiple days of Jamar Frazier’s original trial for the murder of her son. At the conclusion of that trial Frazier was convicted of first-degree murder, which normally carries a life sentence.
Instead, Jamar Frazier (now 33 years old) had been a free man for two years at the beginning of his retrial last week due to an appellate court decision in his favor.
After spending a total of seven years behind bars (four in the county jail awaiting trial and then three years on his actual sentence) Frazier’s court-appointed legal team was able to get his case in front of the Court of Criminal Appeals, which ruled in 2019 that although there was sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict, the presiding judge had made errors serious enough to warrant sending the case back for a new trial.
According to the case’s lead prosecutor, Knox County Assistant District Attorney Hector Sanchez, seven years for a case to wind its way through the trial phase and then to the appellate court is not unusual in the Tennessee system. “A typical caseload for court-appointed attorneys is overwhelming in a good year,” said Sanchez. “And the violent crime rate is as bad as it has ever been this year.”
In fact, Knox County prosecutors must deal with approximately 50,000 misdemeanor and felony cases a year, according to DA’s Office spokesperson Sean McDermott. Approximately ten percent of those cases make their way into the courtrooms of one of Knox County’s three Criminal Court judges, which adds up to more than 1,650 major crimes each year for each judge.
On its face it seems contradictory: the Court of Appeals concludes the defendant is probably guilty while allowing him a do-over. In Tennessee’s appeals system, every right guaranteed to a defendant under the state and federal constitutions matters, even the right to rerun a technically flawed trial at least once on the minuscule chance of acquittal, or maybe the chance of being convicted of a lesser included offense, thus serving less time (like 25 years instead of life). What does a defendant have to lose by rolling the dice? So, because of a mistake made by a judge or an attorney, Chris Melton’s admitted killer gets to roll the dice once more for a chance at a marginally better life.
And Chris’s mom gets to be collateral damage yet again, victimized by her son’s killer one more time.
Chris lived with his mother in South Knoxville’s Montgomery Village public housing project. For each of the past nine years, Trish has organized an annual “Community Awareness Walk” through the Village to commemorate Chris and all survivors and victims of gun violence.
“Through the years since I lost him, this kind of thing that brings the community together to support each other has helped me get over the pain,” she said during the most recent Walk, which brought out more than 100 supporters to the Village last week. This year’s event included Austin-East families still reeling from the recent string of gun deaths affecting that school and its surrounding community.
With more people than ever showing up this year for the event, she was asked if this was helping her to move on. “This year…” she trails off, slowly shaking her head as if to say, “Not so much.”
This year’s Walk was on the day before the retrial began.
The State’s attorneys demonstrated their strong propensity for visuals right out of the gate with their opening arguments, well-endowed with PowerPoint slides of various “evidence boards” depicting the defendant, victim, witnesses, gang members, cars, houses, streets, woods – all labeled and connected by various lines (they would have been pins and strings on any TV cop show) indicating their connection to each other and the prosecution’s theory of the case.
In contrast to the State’s arsenal of laptops, projectors, laser pointers, colored Sharpies, and oversized poster board maps, defense attorney Kit Rogers brought a single briefcase. Out of prison for two years after his appeal was upheld, his client maintained an attentive posture throughout the trial, presenting crisply in a button-down shirt, new black slim jeans to match his slim build, and freshly coiffed high top flame fade haircut.
The first round of evidence presented was about 90 minutes of recorded E-911 calls from the afternoon of July 3, 2012. The calls of at least six different people were heard in their entirety, setting up the initial narrative to be told and retold over the next three days by the prosecution. While Trish was obviously unsettled by the recordings she reassured her best friend, Sandy Williamson, that she was OK. It would be the first of countless emotional check-ins between the two moms over the next three days, as Williamson refused to leave her side throughout the ordeal.
The first eyewitness called to the stand was the first KPD officer to arrive on the scene. He was asked to describe the twenty or so pictures of the crime scene that were projected onto the courtroom screen, starting with the area surrounding the crime scene. The close-up of Chris’s corpse, facedown on the ground with shredded pieces of flesh splayed across the back of his head, came with no warning. In hindsight it’s obvious this kind of picture would be shown, but maybe we assumed someone who knew when it was coming would give us a heads-up. No one did, however, and Trish stood up, holding her stomach, and made her way out of the courtroom with Sandy at her heels.
Before this day is over, the story of how Chris Melton was killed will have been told at least 18 times by 18 different people, including 12 times from the various vantage points of neighbors who happened to be driving by, or just getting into or out of their cars, or just getting back from Kroger and unloading their 4th of July groceries as an altercation brewed in the South Knoxville neighborhood of Vestal.
Trish sat through it all, mostly gazing at the floor or off to one side or the other of the courtroom. Reliably, she would start wiping her eyes when each of the witnesses got to the part about seeing Frazier chase Chris into the woods off Smelser Road and hearing gunshots seconds later.
Next up was KPD Investigator Tim Riddle, whose first task was to unseal and verify the contents of an “evidence box.” After pulling out numerous envelopes from the box, Detective Riddle explained that they contained all the items collected from the crime scene. He was then asked to read off the list of items contained in each envelope: “Five-dollar bill from the victim’s pocket. Red disposable lighter found near the victim. Victim’s shoes, pair of socks, boxer shorts…”
At this point Trish’s face was in her hands.
She did not leave the courtroom that day, except for breaks. When asked by Sandy during one of the breaks how she had managed to hold up so well today, Trish answered wordlessly, with her finger pointing, first to Sandy, then to her Salem cigarette, then to the sky.
After the evidence box was inventoried, an hour-long video was played of Detective Riddle’s September 2012 interrogation of Jamar Frazier, during which the accused went through five versions of where he was and what he did on the day that Chris was killed. Relentlessly confronting Frazier with cell phone records and corroborating statements from an array of witnesses, Riddle patiently and skillfully moved Frazier from denying being in Knoxville at all that day to ultimately admitting that he shot Chris in the Vestal woods.
The only question remaining was whether Jamar Frazier’s claim of self-defense could hold water, especially considering how all of his claims leading up to this one were shown to be bogus. While no one saw Chris or Jamar with a gun as they ran into the woods, Jamar claimed that he shot Chris with a gun that fell out of Chris’s hands (such a gun was never recovered). The all-important difference between murder or self-defense hinged upon the credibility of this detail and was one reason why the original verdict was overturned on appeal. This time, the jury was instructed that while the evidence to find that Frazier acted in self-defense need only be “sufficient but not overwhelming,” for first-degree murder they would need to find premeditation “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The resolve that Trish Melton had mustered to remain in the courtroom through the rest of the trial was to be tested one final time.
Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Cogswell was the State’s last witness before resting its case. The two-hour testimony consisted of Dr. Cogswell explaining two dozen enlarged morgue photos showing different angles of Chris’s dead body. Basically, the doctor’s job was to describe — for two hours in clinical and graphic detail — exactly how Trish’s son was found at the scene, exactly how her son’s skull was shattered by a bullet while running away from his attacker, and exactly how a bullet destroys a brain and a young life.
Trish left the courtroom again. She didn’t make it back before the State rested its case.
In the end, it took only 90 minutes for the 12 jurors to announce they’d reached a verdict. Awaiting their judgement, Trish stood trembling in her bench at the rear of the courtroom. Judge Green demanded silence before the jury’s foreman announced the decision: guilty of murder in the second degree.
As Sandy watched Trish collapse, slumped back onto the bench and sobbing, she knew her friend well enough to understand those were sobs of relief.
Frazier and his attorney hugged before turning their attention back to Judge Green. As the parties were in the process of agreeing to a June date for sentencing, for the first time in three days Frazier asked to make a statement. Trish and Sandy quickly collected themselves for what they thought might be some measure of consolation, some expression of remorse or even an apology, from Frazier for violently ending Chris’s life.
Instead, Jamar Frazier’s “statement” was that the date in question was his birthday and he didn’t want to be sentenced on his birthday. Betraying no emotion, Judge Green asked the lawyers to accommodate Frazier’s schedule by agreeing on another date in June. Frazier thanked the judge before he was placed in handcuffs by Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputies and escorted out of the courtroom.
The prosecutors said they would be pushing for the maximum sentence for Frazier: 25 years in prison with no possibility of parole.
A GOOD SCREAM
“What now?” asked Sandy. “If you could do anything in the world right now, what would it be?”
Without skipping a beat, Trish replied, “Let’s go see Chris.”
Along with Chris Melton, Mount Olive Cemetery in South Knoxville has very recently taken in both Stanley Freeman and Anthony Thompson, two of the five Austin-East students gunned down this year.
After some collective moments of reflection at Chris’s headstone, Trish asked Sandy and I to give her some time alone with him. I went to get a closer look at Anthony’s and Stanley’s graves while Sandy went back to the car for a smoke. Both of those graves were still inundated with flower arrangements, easily spotted within sight of Chris’s last resting place.
Within a few minutes Trish made her way over to me. “I know everybody thinks it’s crazy but I don’t care,” she said. “Chris just told me he’s OK and that he has forgiven Frazier.” As she looked at the students’ graves she said, “He said these kids are alright now, too. He said it’s finally time for me to be OK, too.” She took a deep breath, taking in the smell of dead and dying flowers in the spring air. “For the first time in years I feel like I will be.”
“What now?” I asked. “If you could do anything in the world right now, what would it be?”
Without skipping a beat, Trish replied, “Take me home. I need to go into my room and have a good scream.”
Rick Held can be reached at email@example.com.
Published on May 3, 2021