Teen’s family hires Crump

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump

The family of Anthony Thompson Jr. has hired Benjamin Crump, the nation’s preeminent civil rights attorney, to “seek justice” against the Knoxville Police Department for the teen’s violent death in an Austin-East Magnet High School restroom last week. 

Crump, a Nashville-based lawyer who has represented the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor, issued a statement today on behalf of the dead child’s family in which he lashed out at how the case has been handled by KPD and the TBI.

“We will seek answers and justice for Anthony’s family,” Crump said.

The announcement that Crump was representing Thompson’s family came only an hour before Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon held a press conference in which she explained why she’s fighting to have bodycam videos of the shooting released to the public. 

Anthony Thompson Jr.

“Trust is a two-way street and accountability is essential,” she said. 

Monday’s developments came after a weekend of rallies and protests, most of them questioning the legitimacy of the April 12 shooting and demanding the videos be made public. 

Crump, who has handled some of the most high-profile police misconduct cases in the country, compared Thompson’s death to those of other young Black men who have lost their lives in confrontations with officers.

“Once again, when a Black person is killed, in this case a Black child, the police shape a narrative to justify the death,” Crump said. “The world was told that Anthony shot an officer and that’s why police fatally shot him. Then, the facts revealed the only shots fired were by law enforcement and the injured police officer may have been struck by his own bullet or another officer’s bullet.”

 Crump continued: “Why are Black lives treated as disposable by police in case after case? It’s shocking to me that when suspects are white, even shooters who took multiple lives like Kyle Rittenhouse and Nikolas Cruz, police manage to take them into custody alive. But when a suspect is a person of color, there is no attempt to de-escalate the situation. Police shoot first and ask questions later, time after time, because Black lives are afforded less value.”

Thompson’s death was only the most recent tragedy in a series of incidents that had already claimed the lives of four Austin-East students this semester. Resentment against KPD and a history of economic neglect by the rest of the City was already a factor in discussions over how to handle the spate of killings, with KPD taking heat both for not making enough progress in the murder investigations and for intensifying its East Knoxville patrols in an effort to deter criminals. 

Knox County DA Charme Allen

Thompson’s death changed the topic and the tone of the debate. The TBI initially accused the teen of shooting SRO Adam Willson but later recanted that statement and said Willson’s wound apparently came from a police firearm.

The community’s reaction shifted from shock and grief to anger and suspicion. In the absence of an account of the shooting that residents considered trustworthy, rumors and conflicting stories have filled the void and led some protesters to accuse KPD of murdering the child.  

It’s exactly the kind of situation that the City and KPD hoped to avoid by spending $5 million to buy bodycams for KPD officers, Mayor Kincannon said Monday. 

“Just a few weeks ago we announced that they were fully deployed,” she said. “We pursued these cameras as another tool to build public trust and to be transparent with the community. ‘Transparent’ also means ‘timely’ — not six or 18 months later, but as soon after an incident as possible.

“Every day the video is not released perpetuates rumors and misinformation. Every day the video is not released undermines public trust. It is my first priority to get the video released.  The sooner we get the video out the sooner we can begin to process and to heal.”

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon

Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen said last Thursday that she wouldn’t release the videos before the TBI probe is complete and she can make a determination on whether criminal charges will be filed.

Allen also has instructed City officials — who control their own copy of the digital footage— to not release the videos, citing a 2019 order filed in Knox County Criminal Court that strictly controls the distribution of police videos to defense attorneys seeking copies as part of the discovery process.

Kincannon, however, told the City’s staff attorney, Charles Swanson, to file a “petition for interpretation and clarification” in Criminal Court that will — if approved— allow the public to see the footage. 

Swanson’s legal argument is straightforward: the court order “very specifically sets forth that it applies to videos in criminal proceedings and pertains solely to videos which are part of a ‘pending criminal proceeding,’ neither of which are present in the existing matter.”

Swanson added that the City “does not wish to violate or disobey the lawful order of this Court nor does (the City) wish to inadvertently be in contempt of this Court’s orders by releasing the subject videos.”

When asked for comment on Kincannon’s legal bid to release the videos, a DA’s office spokesman issued the following statement:  “Gen. Allen outlined this Office’s position and the law governing that position at length last Thursday.  This Office has been working around-the-clock to quickly but thoroughly examine the evidence being collected in this investigation to make the legal determination we are obligated by the Constitution to make.”

Police block off the street leading to Austin-East Magnet High School after the April 12 deadly shooting of a teen by KPD officers. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

 Thompson’s death was only the most recent tragedy in the midst of an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched every corner of the city.

There were 37 homicides in Knoxville in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998. Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been at least 16 slayings in the city, all of them involving firearms, plus at least five more homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office.

Thompson was the fifth Austin-East student to be shot to death this semester.

.Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend Jan. 27. Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was killed Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died early March 11 at a local hospital, several hours after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound in South Knoxville.

Two male juveniles have since been charged with first-degree murder for Freeman’s death and are waiting to learn if they will stand trial as adults. Police are still searching for the killers of Muhammad and Gillette.

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

Published on April 20, 2021