Slain Senator Trial Begins

Monday, August 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Byron (Low Tax) Looper was a cadet at West Point, attended law school and served as an aide in the Georgia Legislature. But those credentials never led to the political success he coveted.

Twice a political loser, Looper longed for the successful life enjoyed by his opponent, state Sen. Tommy Burks. Two years ago, police say, he took that life.

Looper, who was so consumed with politics that he legally changed his middle name to (Low Tax) — including the parentheses — is set to go on trial Monday in Crossville for the murder of Burks.

Looper, 35, has pleaded innocent.

Burks, 58, was a popular, well-respected and dedicated lawmaker in Tennessee and the clear favorite to win the 1998 election against Looper. The Democrat had served 28 years in the Tennessee Legislature — never missing one day — while overseeing a hog and tobacco farm in Cumberland County with his wife, Charlotte.

Looper, a Republican, had been at West Point but dropped out, and his personal life was unstable.

Looper's mother and father divorced when he was a boy. He has a son from an estranged girlfriend, but acknowledged the boy as his son only after being threatened with a DNA test and lawsuit.

He twice lost elections for public office before finally being elected Putnam County property assessor in 1996.

Two years later, he sought to unseat Burks.

On Oct. 19, 1998, police say, Looper acted to ensure his victory. As Burks sat in his pickup truck on a gravel road at his farm, an unfamiliar car pulled alongside.

Farmhand Wesley Rex said he heard a single ``pop,'' then saw the car speed away and Burks slump in his seat. Burks died instantly of a shot to the head.

At a pretrial hearing, Rex identified Looper as the driver of the speeding car.

A former high school friend of Looper's, Joe Bond, testified that Looper visited him 16 hours after the killing and told him: ``I killed that dude. The guy I was running against.''

Looper disappeared the day of the shooting, then resurfaced four days later at his Cookeville home and surrendered to waiting police. He offered the officers sodas before he was arrested on first-degree murder charges.

His trial has been delayed by motions seeking a new judge and change of venue. Looper also has changed attorneys eight times.

Looper was granted a change of venue, but later changed his mind. Earlier this summer, Looper reversed course again and requested an out-of-county jury because of pretrial coverage.

Criminal Court Judge Steve Daniel of Murfreesboro has issued a gag order, barring everyone involved with the case from speaking about it until the trial is completed.

After her husband's killing, Charlotte Burks ran against Looper as a write-in candidate and won a landslide victory.