JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Tennessee law would have allowed a judge to revoke the bond of Billy Anderson on at least three separate occasions between late September 2021 and mid-January 2022, well before the March 18 fatal shooting of 20-year-old Brionah Tester that Anderson is accused of committing.
Bond revocation never happened, and Anderson, 33, is charged with second-degree murder in Tester’s death. Police picked him up on March 21 on suspicion of stealing a car that he had taken for a test drive March 16 and not returned. Having already developed him as a suspect in Tester’s death, they were able to hold him on a probation violation until his indictment Wednesday.
Anderson had been charged with a string of offenses that included four separate felony charges of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Tennessee Code Annotated 40-11-141(b) allows a court to revoke bond and hold in jail any previously charged defendant who, among other things, “is charged with an offense committed during the defendant’s release…”
Instead of making that call, judges and courts set bonds for Anderson ranging from $1,000 to $30,000 and totaling $84,000. Each time, Anderson posted bond and walked free.
Local defense attorney Don Spurrell reviewed Anderson’s court records. When asked whether Anderson could have been kept in jail at some point starting with his second meth charge on Oct. 21, Spurrell didn’t hesitate.
“Not only could have but should have,” Spurrell said. “Under Tennessee law, when a person has been charged with an offense and then while they are out on bond — and bond has meaning, it means that you don’t commit additional offenses while you’re out on bond.
“And if you do, the state (prosecutors) can and often does move to hold someone without bond.”
The outcome in Anderson’s case is extreme, and it’s impossible to say whether Brionah Tester would be alive if prosecutors had successfully requested revocation of his bond at some point between Oct. 21 and mid-January, the last time he was in court on additional felony charges.
But Spurrell said the issue is common enough to draw at least quiet criticism from law enforcement officers.
“I know that police are very, very frustrated,” he said. “They tell me all the time, police officers tell me all the time that they’re frustrated with the revolving door of defendants who are consistently released.”
Where does the blame lie?
A look at Anderson’s arrest, court and bond history between September and January shows that nearly every time a different clerk signed off on his bonds. Only two of seven warrants have a judge’s signature. Spurrell said it’s not unusual for repeat defendants to appear before different judges or have their bond set by clerks who are simply following the standard range of amounts for the crime alleged.
“Who then, or what agency, has the authority then to be alarmed by this enough to say, ‘uh-oh, we got a person who is in decline, a person whose offense conduct is becoming more and more serious – we got to act on this?’” Spurrell said.
He said the court isn’t responsible for scrutinizing these kinds of details.
“You can’t expect a judge to have a staff person out there reviewing every arrest that takes place and go, ‘oh, wow, yeah, this, I remember that guy.’”
That’s because judges don’t typically have a comprehensive fact sheet sitting in front of them that shows whether a defendant has several, a few, one or no outstanding criminal issues that he’s been released on bond to await trial on.
With defendants appearing in multiple courts in front of multiple judges, not to mention sometimes picking up charges in other counties or states, Spurrell said the task of getting enough solid information to make educated decisions about bond revocation is a tough one.
“It’s really not the fault of any one particular agency, it’s a fault of the system itself of not being integrated enough to where the information gets out,” he said.
“It’s the ability to see objective facts concerning offensive behavior and recognize and assess the dangerousness of that conduct. And that’s a tough one. You don’t put it in a computer. But to some extent maybe you can.”
That might look like a database, combined with court officers responsible for reviewing it, that could flag situations requiring more scrutiny.
“We have got to have a better cooperative effort involved of transmitting this data quickly to the district attorney’s office,” Spurrell said. “The district attorney’s office needs a liaison, a person who is designated … who basically does a check every day to determine what arrests have been made.”
Another case illustrates how long it can take to reach the point of a revocation request, if that even comes.
Wayne Morris, 56, had his bond revoked on Jan. 3. He had been accused of multiple crimes against an ex-girlfriend in September, November and December and posted multiple bonds totaling $179,000.
Morris had been charged with attempting to kidnap the woman Dec. 4, after he’d already allegedly violated an order of protection three previous times. He then allegedly attempted another kidnapping on Dec. 20 but was shot by the victim’s friend who was present — and Morris posted a $100,000 bond Dec. 25 before failing to appear at a Dec. 27 preliminary hearing.
What would the Billy Anderson file have told the courts?
By the time Johnson City police got a first-degree murder warrant for Billy Anderson on March 21, which they didn’t serve after opting to consult with the DA’s office, the convicted felon had been found with a total of 95 grams of meth on four different occasions.
He had been charged with shoplifting, found passed out in one stolen car, allegedly stolen another car and been questioned as the suspect in a domestic disturbance — among other alleged offenses.
None of it was enough to keep Anderson in jail or expedite his court dates on the multiple charges.
The Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) was involved in most of the arrests. But if officers had an opinion about Anderson’s continued releases on bond, it wasn’t their place to share it. Those decisions are between the DA, the judge and any opposition a defense attorney might put forth, JCPD Capt. Kevin Peters said.
“The police department itself, we have no jurisdiction over the bond, we have nothing to with the bond,” Peters said. “That’s set through either a magistrate or a judicial officer.”
Spurrell acknowledged bond revocation decisions still come down to what he called “subjectively assessing the objective facts you have.”
But when those facts aren’t put before a judge, the standard approach is to set a bond amount in isolation from the whole picture. In Anderson’s case and numerous others — especially those involving domestic violence or methamphetamine, which he called “a powerful substance that leads people to do incredibly irrational, dangerous and oftentimes violent things” — Spurrell said the answer is often to err on the side of protecting the public above the defendant’s standard right to bail.
“If you have facts of a person who is committing greater and greater offenses or even similar offenses under circumstances where they know, or should know, that they’re going to be incarcerated for it and they continue to commit those crimes, the probabilities are there,” Spurrell said.
“The statistical probabilities are there that their conduct is going to become more aggravated, so we have to do a better job at looking at objective facts and arriving at a careful assessment of their dangerousness to the community.”
News Channel 11 emailed First Judicial District Attorney Ken Baldwin Friday with several questions about the office’s approach to requests for bond revocation, as well as whether they had requested it in Anderson’s case. Baldwin has not yet responded.