Same old story, different district

A body-cam image of Stephen A. Burroughs of Knoxville, Tenn., as he searches for his boat registration before being charged with BUI on Memorial Day 2016 on Fort Loudon Lake. The charges were dismissed in October after a specially appointed judge heard the case. (Photo by the Knoxville News Sentinel)

Burroughs’ BUI dismissed by appointed judge

The story will sound familiar to local readers: A wealthy, powerful man is arrested, the judge recuses himself, and a specially appointed judge dismisses the charges.

The last name of the defendant will also sound familiar to local readers: Burroughs.

Stephen Burroughs, 50, of Knoxville, Tenn., was arrested for boating under the influence on Fort Loudon Lake in eastern Tennessee on Memorial Day 2016. Arresting officer Jeff Roberson recognized Burroughs and Knox County Judge Scott Green decided to step aside and let another judge hear the case. Appointed Judge Darryl Edmonson dismissed the BUI charge and implied consent violation, then reduced the reckless boating charge from a Class A to a Class C misdemeanor, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Burroughs is a well-known attorney in Knoxville, advertising on more than 40 billboards and on the sides of buses in the area. He grew up in Jones County, graduated from Northeast Jones and is an uncle to 38-year-old Greg Burroughs of Laurel, who is charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of 23-year-old girlfriend Katherine Sinclair.

The Tennessee conservation officer Roberson can be heard on a body-cam recording telling his assisting officer, “That’s Stephen A. Burroughs,” as the attorney searched the cabin cruiser for his boat registration.

The recognition of the local celebrity and saying his name was troublesome for the appointed judge.

“I don’t think (Roberson) has any malice or ill will, but I have to worry about that determination … I don’t think I can take that out of the equation,” Edmonson said after a preliminary hearing in Knox County General Sessions Court that lasted almost six hours, according to the News Sentinel.

Stephen Burroughs reportedly passed within 100 feet of the officer’s patrol boat at a high rate of speed while the officer was on a stop with another group of boaters. Burroughs reportedly admitted to consuming alcoholic beverages but said he was not impaired. Roberson conducted field sobriety tests and determined he was impaired, then charged him with BUI.

“I knew it might get a lot of media attention, but I didn’t base my field sobriety assessment on that,” Roberson told Burroughs’ attorney Marcos Garza, according to the News Sentinel.

Knox County Assistant District Attorney Miriam Johnson argued that it wasn’t a question of whether Burroughs was drunk, but that he was too impaired to operate the vessel.

Roberson’s report stated that Burroughs had a “strong odor of alcohol” along with “very slurred speech” and he continued to brace himself on railings and chairs as he walked around the boat.

But after reviewing the footage, the appointed judge said, “That looks pretty normal to anybody that’s been on a boat. I haven’t really seen any evidence of the unsteadiness on his feet to have reasonable suspicion (to administer a field sobriety test). I haven’t heard any slurred speech.”

Edmonson dismissed the two most serious charges and reduced the other charge, leaving it to prosecutors whether they wanted to take that case to a grand jury. The maximum penalty is a $50 fine and 30 days in jail.

Judge Green reportedly recused himself from the case, even though neither side asked him to. “I’ve given this a lot of thought and I don’t think I should hear this case,” Green said at Burroughs’ arraignment, according to the News Sentinel. “I’ve known him now for 20-plus years.”

Power and influence over the local judiciary has been a common theme in the saga involving his nephew Greg Burroughs in Laurel. Only a few weeks after his uncle was arrested in Tennessee, Greg Burroughs was arrested for driving drunk with his then-8-year-old daughter in the vehicle in what was described as a “high-crime area” in the arresting officer’s incident report.

Burroughs was charged with DUI, child endangerment and other misdemeanors, but they were dismissed or Justice Court Judge Howell Beech found him not guilty, noting that it was because the officer didn’t show up for court. Then-Deputy Josh Welch, who is now a Laurel police officer, insists that he let the court know he was on the way to court and other cases could have been heard while he was en route.

In 2014, Laurel police were called to Burroughs’ residence by a girlfriend who was accusing him of domestic violence, but she wound up getting arrested for public drunkenness.

Burroughs’ first call was to his friend, Laurel Municipal Judge Kyle Robertson, after Sinclair was found  suffering from a single gunshot to the right side of her head in the driver’s seat of her Honda in the garage of Burroughs’ house in the gated community Windermere. Burroughs said that Sinclair, who is left-handed, shot herself. Almost six months later, a Jones County grand jury indicted him for manslaughter. He was arrested and is out on $125,000 bond until his scheduled June 6 trial.

His family hired high-powered Hattiesburg attorney Tracy Klein of Hattiesburg and former longtime Jones County Circuit Court Judge Billy Joe Landrum to the defense team.

After Landrum was hired, Klein filed a motion requesting that Jones County Circuit Judge Dal Williamson recuse himself, citing the heated political race that Landrum and Williamson were in for the 2014 election and because the defendant’s uncle, Robert Burroughs, refused Williamson’s request for a campaign donation and instead made “substantial” contributions to Landrum’s campaign. Stephen Burroughs is Robert Burroughs’ youngest brother.

Williamson denied that request, but officials with knowledge of court proceedings, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have said Burroughs’ attorneys are wanting to get a specially appointed judge who isn’t answerable to the local electorate to hear the case. By Williamson’s refusal to recuse himself, Burroughs’ attorneys will likely appeal to the state Supreme Court, where Landrum has several friends and close colleagues. If they get an appointed judge, the defense attorneys could then ask for a bench trial or request and receive a directed verdict from the judge during the trial.

Stephen Burroughs did not respond to emails requesting comment.

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