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Retrial planned in Leon Houston case

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

rclawrence@bellsouth.net

The dry piece of tissue Eva Yates clutched in her hand told the story.

“I had my crying towel out, but I didn't have to use it,” Yates said as she left the Roane County Courthouse on Sunday.

Yates had just learned the jury deliberating the fate of her nephew, Leon Houston, was hopelessly deadlocked. Judge James “Buddy” Scott declared a mistrial in the case.

“I'm pleased with it,” Yates said of the outcome.

Special prosecutor Robert “Gus” Radford told Scott he plans to retry Houston for the May 2006 murders of Roane County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Jones and his ride-along passenger Mike Brown.

“I've done this before,” Radford said.

Jones and Brown were killed in a shootout outside of Houston's home on Barnard Narrows Road. Radford contends the men were ambushed by Leon and his younger brother, Rocky. The brothers claim they acted in self defense. Rocky's trial is scheduled to start in November, but that may not happen now, depending on what the court decides to do in Leon's case.

"The judge has indicated that he may try this case in November when Rocky Joe Houston's case was scheduled for trial," Leon's defense attorney James Logan said. “However, that will require input from Mr. Houston, and that's one of the reasons that I asked for a motion hearing to be set as quickly as possible to address which case will be tried first.”

Scott tentatively set a date for Aug. 20 to deal with those matters.

"We can," Yates said, when asked was she prepared to sit through another trial for Leon. “We can. We love him.”

Leon was on his property when the incident happened, and the evidence also showed that he didn't fire any of the fatal shots. Logan said he doesn't know if that played a factor with the jury.

"I don't know what the jury was thinking," Logan said. "Your thoughts are as good as mine."

Leon was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one county of felony murder. The state alleged that the murders of Jones and Brown were premeditated. The jury had the option to return guilty verdicts on some lesser charges, such as criminally negligent homicide, reckless homicide or voluntary manslaughter. In the end, no verdict was returned.

The jury spent two days deliberating the case before declaring the deadlock Sunday afternoon.

It became apparent something significant was about to happen when Roane County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tim Phillips handed Scott a note at 3:32 p.m.

"We'll be in recess and prepare the necessary further instructions for the jury,” Scott said, after reading the note.

With the occasional sound of a few whispers, it got eerily silent in the courtroom. Phillips also tipped the courtroom off with his attire. He had been sporting a polo shirt all day, but moments after handing Scott the note, he returned to the courtroom wearing a tactical vest. Several armed law enforcement officers entered the courtroom and lined the back wall.

The jury, which consisted of six men and six women, filed in at 3:45 p.m. Scott asked were they hopelessly deadlocked.

"This jury thinks so,” the foreman said.

Scott then asked for everyone who felt that way to raise their right hand. All 12 went up.

With that, and Scott's decision to declare a mistrial, the family members of the deceased and the accused walked out of the courthouse without closure.

Lisa Burris, Leon's sister, continues to hope some will come for all who have an emotional stake in the case.

"Everybody is affected by it,” she said. “It's not just the victims; it's not just the defendants -- everybody. It was a bad thing that happened.”

Pistol-packing law enforcement officers kept members of the media from approaching the Jones and Brown families as they left the courthouse.

Some members of the Houston family also didn't want to speak to the press, but they didn't get a heavily armed escort and were forced to fend off reporters themselves.

Earlier in the day, one of Jones' sisters expressed empathy for what the jurors were going through.

"I wouldn't want to be deciding someone's fate,” Susan Rittenberry said.

Rittenberry described the wait as “real tiring.” At one point she tried to occupy herself by reading the Sunday comics.

"We try not to let things get us down,” she said of her family. “We've always been a playful family and been real close. It's just something we do.”

Leon and Rocky have both been in custody for more than two years. Last year Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood set their bond at $900,000 each. Logan said he'll be making a request to have Leon's lowered.

"That will be one of the motions I will be filing,” he said.