Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Lon Walker

Other Tennessee Murder Exonerations
On October 14, 1995, Stacy Patzer made a hysterical 911 call to police in Cookeville, Tennessee, to report that 25-year-old James Harp had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
 
The shooting occurred in the trailer home of 43-year-old Lon Walker after a day of heavy drinking. When police arrived, Walker and Patzer told them that Harp had shot himself in the head.
 
Police learned that Harp had previously attempted suicide several times while intoxicated and earlier that day had told his brother he was going to kill himself.  An autopsy showed that Harp died of a contact gunshot wound to the side of the head and that his blood alcohol content was .40 percent.
 
Two days later, on Monday, October 16, 1995, the lead investigator went to Walker’s trailer where he found Walker and Patzer returning from an errand. Patzer went with the officer, James Lane, to the police station for questioning. At that time, Patzer’s husband was in jail on several theft-related charges.
 
Patzer would later testify that she spent the next two to three hours drinking coffee and talking with Officer Lane. During this period, Patzer said, she realized for the very first time that that Harp had not committed suicide, but that he had been shot by Walker.
 
Although the physical evidence suggested Harp committed suicide (there was no gunshot residue on Walker), police issued a warrant for Walker’s arrest for first-degree murder.
 
At 2:00 a.m. the following day, Patzer called police and asked whether Walker had been arrested and was informed that he had not been arrested. A few hours later, police received another call from Patzer and responded to her house. Patzer claimed that Walker had been there, had awakened her as she slept and threatened her because she implicated him in Harp’s death.
 
Subsequently Walker was arrested and in February 1997, he went to trial in Putnam County Circuit Court.
 
Patzer was the key prosecution witness. She testified that after drinking coffee in the police station, she finally sobered up. When her mind became clear, she remembered that Walker fired the gun.

The pistol, which had been recovered at the scene, belonged to Walker. A detective said that Walker initially denied owning the gun, but later conceded the gun was his and that he had lied because he was afraid he would be blamed for allowing an intoxicated Harp to pick it up.

The defense presented Patzer’s statements to police at the trailer after the shooting, her 911 call saying that Harp had committed suicide, as well as statements to her husband and some friends that Harp had shot himself.
 
The defense also presented evidence that Harp had been severely depressed for years and between the ages of 15 and 23, he attempted suicide six times. Harp’s brother testified that on the morning of the shooting, Harp said he was going to kill himself. Harp’s brother also testified that two of Harp’s past attempts at suicide occurred when he was drunk.
 
Walker’s defense lawyer presented testimony from Willie Bennis, a friend of Patzer’s, who told the jury that Patzer said she would have said “anything I have to” to get her husband released from pretrial detention.
 
Bennis also testified that a day after the incident, Patzer told her that Harp “was wanting to go to bed with her and she wasn’t going to and he said he was going to kill his self if she didn’t. She said she didn’t give a damn, so he put his gun to his head and blowed his brains out.”
 
On February 10, 1997, the jury convicted Walker of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
 
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence in 1999. In 2003, Walker filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging his conviction on several grounds. The petition claimed that Patzer had recanted her statement to the police that Walker had awakened her and threatened her after she had implicated him in Harp’s death. She said the statement had been a lie—which could have been used to undermine her credibility when she later testified as a witness at Walker’s trial.
 
The petition also claimed that the prosecution had made improper arguments to the jury and that the judge had erroneously instructed the jury that Patzer’s statement to the 911 operator that Harp had committed suicide could only be considered to impeach her testimony that she saw Walker shoot Harp, and not as evidence that Harp in fact killed himself.
 
After a U.S. District Judge denied the petition, Walker appealed and in February 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted the petition and ordered a new trial for Walker.
 
The appeals court held that although the trial judge had allowed Patzer’s 911 statements to come in as statements she believed were true, he then erroneously instructed the jury to consider the statements only to impeach Patzer’s testimony that Walker shot Harp.  The court also held that Walker’s lawyer had provided a constitutionally ineffective defense when he failed to object to the judge’s erroneous instruction.
 
“After providing the jury the evidentiary tools with which it could find that Harp shot himself, (defense) counsel did not object to the court’s instruction taking those tools from the jury, thus rendering ‘meaningless’ his defense based on the truth of Patzer’s 911 statements,” the appeals court said.
 
The appeals court also ruled that the prosecution had improperly argued to the jury that Walker was aware that Harp had a history of attempting suicide and therefore knew that he could shoot Harp and blame Harp himself for it.
 
“The record does not disclose that Walker knew about (Harp’s) history of suicide attempts, and so it was improper for the prosecutor to assert that Walker knew of them,” the appeals court said.
 
The court also concluded that in his closing argument to the jury the prosecutor had improperly vouched for the integrity of the police investigation by saying, “If this had been a suicide, (the detective) probably would have been happy to fold his case file up and let it go….And if he feels that was not justice, then he’s got to investigate. He didn’t need another case. He’s got plenty of them.”
 
The court ruled, “While all of the prosecutors’ comments lauding the officer’s investigation were out of bounds, it was especially improper… to assert that (the detective) ‘would have been happy to fold his case file up . . . if (Harp’s death) had been a suicide.”
 
On March 8, 2012, the prosecution dismissed the charge and Walker was released.

– Maurice Possley
 
 

Report an error or add more information about this case.

Posting Date: 11/30/2015
State:Tennessee
County:Putnam
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2012
Sentence:20 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:43
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No