Two teens, already in jail for acts of gun violence, face charges for the killing of a Knoxville student who was driving away from school last month, authorities said Monday.
Police lodged murder charges on Monday against the two suspects, who are believed to have shot and killed 16-year-old Stanley Freeman Jr. as he was leaving the Austin-East Magnet High School campus on Feb. 12.
No one was celebrating, however, because it turned out the alleged killers were children themselves.
The grim announcement that two boys, ages 14 and 16, had been charged with first-degree murder was made at a press conference by law enforcement officials and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic circumstances of this case in its totality,” said Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas. “Not only is a 16-year-old boy dead because of this senseless act of violence, but …. two children are now charged for their role in his death.”
She added: “Simply put, this is just a really difficult, tragic case.”
Thomas joined District Attorney General Charme Allen in discussing the broad strokes of an investigation that’s consumed the resources of KPD’s Violent Crimes Unit, whose 12 investigators are stretched thin by the bloodiest 15-month stretch in Knoxville’s history.
Many details of the case were omitted from the briefing, however, either because they might compromise the ongoing investigation or because the people involved were juveniles.
Freeman was killed Feb. 12 while he was driving away from the school to go to his part-time job at a local restaurant. He was struck by gunfire apparently fired from nearby Tarleton Ave. before trying to drive away and crashing on Wilson Avenue.
Police had speculated previously that Freeman wasn’t the target but seemed to reverse themselves Monday. Allen stressed the suspects were charged with “premeditated murder,” and Thomas said they “fired multiple rounds into the vehicle.”
Still, investigators hadn’t been able to determine a motive for why Freeman was killed, especially since all indications were that “he was doing everything right,” Thomas said.
When asked how authorities could feel certain the killing was premeditated without having discovered a motive, Thomas said: “We can’t talk about that.”
It wasn’t clear if the teens would be tried as adults.
The two boys were actually taken into custody by police four days after Freeman’s killing. They have been held in juvenile detention since then, but no mention of their suspected connection to the case was made public until Monday.
The boys were picked up Feb. 16 on juvenile petitions charging them each with two counts of attempted first-degree murder for an incident that took place a month earlier.
They were accused of shooting at a vehicle occupied by an 18-year-old woman and a 16-year-old boy who were driving in the vicinity of Magnolia Ave. and Cherry St. on the afternoon of Jan. 14. Neither of the victims were injured.
The suspects also face additional charges of attempted murder stemming from a Feb. 7 shooting on Woodbine Ave. that involved a 41-year-old man and another child, according to police. No one was hurt in that incident, either.
According to Thomas, forensic evidence gathered during the probe of the Jan. 14 shooting eventually led to the suspects being tied to both cases.
Police didn’t say if any firearms had been recovered from the suspects. They also didn’t say how the two children had obtained the gun or guns used in the shootings.
No charges were lodged for Freeman’s death until Monday because investigators wanted to make sure the case was as tight as possible before acting, the chief explained.
“We had to be very careful with our evidence to make sure we had the evidence — and enough evidence — to bring a good case,” Thomas said. “It just takes time, unfortunately …. Things aren’t like you see on T.V.”
Thomas made a point to praise the efforts of the Violent Crimes Unit, saying, “I know they pour their hearts into every case, but especially this case.”
Kincannon stressed the tragic nature of the case and said it will take the combined efforts of law enforcement and residents to bring the current wave of “deadly gun violence” to an end.
“While today’s charges provide a sense of relief for some, let us not forget that there are families whose lives are forever changed,” Kincannon said. “Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are forced to bury their children.
“Let us continue to move forward, united in our mission to bring peace to our streets.”
The Austin-East community is in mourning over the loss of four students in a seven-week period.
Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend Jan. 27. Freeman was killed Feb. 12, 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 on Cherokee Trail.
Because authorities didn’t release the suspects’ names or any other information about them, it wasn’t clear if they, too, were Austin-East students.
The four teens’ deaths were only the most recent tragedies in the midst of an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched almost 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 14 slayings, all of them involving firearms. In comparison, by this time in 2020 there had been six homicides.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published on March 16, 2021