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Judge ponders 'troubling twists and turns' in Union County murder case

Judge Shayne Sexton said he'd rule May 28 on whether to grant a new trial for Shannon Smith.

MAYNARDVILLE, Tenn. — After hearing a full day of testimony about evidence that's emerged in a Union County murder case, Judge Shayne Sexton had to acknowledge Thursday he'd found some "troubling twists and turns" in the case.

Still, the veteran judge said he had a lot to think about and weigh in deciding whether allegations against a lead investigator in the case merit a new trial for Shannon Smith, 48.

Sexton told Smith, her lawyer T. Scott Jones and 8th Judicial District Attorney General Jared Effler he'd issue a ruling May 28.

Smith is serving a 17-year prison sentence in Henning, Tenn., on a second-degree murder conviction in the July 2017 killing of her husband, Tim Smith. A Union County jury decided in March 2019 that she shot him in the face during a fight outside the new home they were building together.

Credit: TBI
Shannon Smith, after her arrest in 2017 on charges she killed her husband outside their Andersonville, Tenn., home.

There seemed little doubt at the time of Smith's guilt. Prosecutors had an audio recording from the homicide, including Tim Smith repeatedly telling his wife to get away from him and to leave him alone. 

There was testimony, too, of Smith's apparent obsession with tracking her husband's whereabouts. And Smith's niece, Amanda Atchley, testified that Smith made a damning statement after her husband died about not wanting to let him get away.

But then as Smith's new appeals lawyer, Jones, started looking into what happened behind the scenes, he began to question the conduct of Union County's chief investigator in the case, Detective Randy Summers.

Through Jones' persistence, Atchley admitted during a May 2020 interview with TBI Special Agent Michael O'Keefe that she'd had sex four times with Summers in summer 2018, months before Smith's murder trial.

That was a surprise to both prosecutors and the defense.

Atchley said the detective hadn't disclosed anything about the facts of the murder case. But a sexual relationship alone was grounds in Jones' mind to either give Smith a new trial or throw out the case altogether.

Knoxville lawyer Robert L. Jolley, who represented Smith at trial, told Sexton he'd have had ample reason to ask all kinds of questions of both Atchley and Summers if he'd only known they'd had a fling. It might have affected his and his client's decisions about trial strategy, he testified.

Credit: WBIR
Amanda Atchley arrives in the courtroom Thursday.

Jones also discovered that Summers had previously been fired in 2015 from a short stint as an agent with the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Summers had tried to hide the fact that he and another ABC agent ended up having sex with a restaurant hostess they met while working in Cleveland, Tenn., a review showed.

From the witness stand

Summers has told WBIR he didn't have sex with Atchley, didn't influence her statements in the case and is only trying to do his job as a career law enforcement officer.

He gave much the same testimony Thursday before Judge Sexton.

Summers testified he'd only been with Atchley about three times the summer of 2018 for minor social interactions that included having a drink and shooting pool. It was always at the Sharp's Chapel short-term home of his friend Eddie Simpson, then a Sheriff's Office deputy and now a detective, he said.

Months later, Atchley would tell TBI Special Agent Nick Brown what she remembered about Smith's conversation at the funeral home. And then Summers would end up being the person to subpoena her to testify at trial.

Summers testified he never had a "relationship" with Atchley, adding that he hadn't informed the District Attorney General's Office about his 2018 encounters with her either.

When Jones directly asked the detective if he and another ABC agent had indeed had sex with the restaurant hostess in 2014, Summers acknowledged he had. He said he'd also informed Effler's office that he'd been dismissed from the ABC, but he didn't tell them about the contents of the dismissal letter he got from then ABC chief Keith Bell.

Credit: Union County Circuit Court
Portion of Randy Summers' dismissal letter from TABC in 2015.

Bell wrote that "the failure of these two TABC special agents to provide the complete and truthful facts surrounding these allegations has caused their credibility to be in question, and as such, their credibility if called to testify in a criminal case is hampered if not destroyed."

Atchley also testified Thursday -- albeit reluctantly.

As Jones tried to question her on the specifics of her May 2020 interview with the TBI's O'Keefe, Atchley balked. Sexton a couple times had to compel her to answer the attorney's questions.

She testified she stood by her statement that she'd had sex with Summers four times, three at Simpson's place and once at Summers' place when his family was away.

"I have nothing else to say," Atchley declared. "I'm not going to incriminate myself further."

Effler argued that Jones' claims of misconduct didn't meet the legal test required to throw out the conviction. Case law, including an old Knox County case, shows instances when the courts let stand a conviction when two state witnesses had sex and it wasn't disclosed to the defense, the prosecutor told Sexton.

Even if Summers had had a relationship with Atchley, it wasn't fatal to the case itself, Effler said. Summers didn't testify about evidence that was key to Smith's conviction, he said. His role wasn't that crucial to the prosecution, he argued.

Also, the prosecutor said, his staff didn't know about the ABC dismissal letter, but Jolley could have done his own investigation into Summers' background.

"Their position is high on theater and high on drama, but it's void of substance and void of case law," Effler told Sexton.

Credit: WBIR
Detective Randy Summers testifies Thursday.

Jones, however, argued Summers was the lead Union County investigator on the case, sharing chief evidentiary duties with the TBI's Agent Brown. 

The lawyer said Summers was the first investigator to arrive at the murder scene, that he collected evidence and even took crime scene photos used at trial.

Summers also was the one to serve a subpoena on Atchley, all the while hiding his quick tryst with her in 2018, Jones said.

"I implore this court to exercise its power and give this lady a new trial," Jones said.

The attorney also called Union County Sheriff Billy Breeding to the stand.

The sheriff praised Summers' investigative work.

When pressed by Jones, he testified that the 2015 ABC dismissal letter hadn't yet been put in the detective's personnel file. The letter, he said, "does cause concern."

The sheriff also acknowledged under questioning by Jones that it's imperative law enforcement officers operate in an ethical manner when doing their jobs.

"Honestly, credibility's all we have," the sheriff said.