|Byron (Low Tax) Looper|
Byron Anthony Looper|
September 15, 1964
June 26, 2013 (aged 48)|
|Cause of death||Atherosclerosis|
|Other names||(Low Tax)|
|Criminal charge||Murder of his political opponent, Tommy Burks|
|Criminal penalty||Life sentence without possibility of parole|
Byron (Low Tax) Looper, born Byron Anthony Looper (September 15, 1964 – June 26, 2013), was a Republican politician in Tennessee. In order to advance his political career, he legally changed his middle name from "Anthony" to "(Low Tax)". After being convicted for the October 1998 murder of his election opponent, incumbent Tennessee State Senator Tommy Burks, he was given a life sentence in prison. He died in Morgan County Correctional Complex on June 26, 2013.
Early life, education, and early career
Looper attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1983 to 1985, but was given an honorable discharge following what he said was a serious knee injury. After being discharged, he moved to Georgia, where he attended the University of Georgia and worked for the state legislature after graduation.
In 1988, Looper ran for the Georgia House of Representatives as a Democrat, losing to Wyc Orr in the Democratic primary. He enrolled as a graduate student in the Stetson School of Business and Economics at Mercer University in Atlanta. He continued his political involvement as an officer in the Georgia Young Democrats organization and as a campaign worker in Al Gore's 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination and the 1992 Clinton-Gore presidential campaign.
In 1996, he legally changed his middle name from Anthony to "(Low Tax)" and ran successfully for the post of Putnam County tax assessor, defeating a 14-year incumbent after a campaign in which he did not make public appearances or participate in debates, instead relying heavily on negative campaign ads.
As tax assessor, Looper used his office's equipment to send numerous press releases to Tennessee news media, making positive claims about himself and alleging various shortcomings on the part of other local officials. At the same time he seldom showed up for work and there were many reports of irregularities in property tax assessments. In March 1998, following an investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Looper was indicted on 14 counts of official misconduct, theft of services and official oppression for theft, misuse of county property and misuse of county employees. He claimed the charges were politically motivated due to Democratic control of Putnam County politics and the Tennessee General Assembly. The Cookeville Herald-Citizen newspaper regularly reported the Republican Tax Assessor's bizarre antics and public verbal assaults of Putnam County elected officials. The Tennessee Republican Party soon claimed no connection with Looper, though campaign contributions and lists of paid political consultants proved otherwise.
On October 30, 1998, after Looper had been arrested and jailed for the murder of Tommy Burks, the Putnam County attorney and ten citizens filed petitions to oust him from the office of tax assessor. In the ouster petitions it was alleged that: (1) Looper had arbitrarily increased the tax assessment on the property of a person who would not contribute to Looper's political campaign fund; (2) Looper had failed to enter assessments on certain parcels of property; (3) Looper had removed a parcel from the tax roll with the intent of preventing the property owner from serving as a county public official or running for public office; (4) Looper had failed to deliver property tax rolls to the county trustee as required by law; (5) Looper erroneously classified certain property as falling under the state's Agricultural, Forest, and Open Space Land Act in order to obtain a benefit under that law; and (6) Looper used county employee time, county money, and other county resources for his own personal and political purposes. The ouster suit led, on January 26, 1999, to Looper's being officially removed from the public office of property assessor.
Looper also faced legal problems from a former girlfriend who sued him for $1.2 million, saying that she got pregnant and bore a child after he forced her to engage in sexual activity and that he had used his official position to steal her house. Earlier he had run campaign ads in which he falsely represented the same girlfriend as his wife.
After Looper's removal from office and conviction for murder, prosecutors decided not to pursue the criminal indictments filed in March 1998.
1998 political candidacies
In the August 1998 primary, Looper sought the Republican nominations for both the Tennessee's 6th congressional district and the Tennessee State Senate. He failed in his quest for the Congressional House nomination, finishing third in a field of four, but won the state senate nomination by default, as he was the only Republican candidate on the ballot. This set up his campaign against incumbent Democratic state senator Tommy Burks.
Burks had represented Putnam County in the state legislature for 28 years, including four two-year terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives and five four-year terms in the Tennessee State Senate. A farmer and an old-style conservative Southern Democrat, he was popular in his district. He was expected to win re-election easily in 1998.
Assassination of Tommy Burks
On the morning of October 19, 1998, authorities were called to investigate a likely murder at the Burks farm. Tommy Burks' body was found with his head resting on the steering wheel of his pickup truck and a single bullet wound above his left eye. Burks had been speaking moments earlier with a farmhand, Wesley Rex, about work that needed to be done on the farm.
Both men had seen a black car drive by the farm on multiple occasions that morning, driven by a man in sunglasses and black gloves. The car had later sped by Rex's truck, allowing Rex to get a view of the driver.
Cumberland County authorities immediately began a standard homicide investigation, but could find no one with any plausible reason to murder Burks. Then Rex called Burks' widow, Charlotte Burks, after seeing a picture of Looper on television, and told her that Looper was the man he had seen speeding away in the black car the morning of the murder.
Looper later turned up in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he met with a friend, United States Marine Corps recruiter Joe Bond. Bond and Looper had been friends as children, and Looper had rekindled the friendship in the summer of 1998, largely on the basis of wanting Bond's expertise in small arms. Bond would eventually become a key witness for the prosecution in Looper's murder trial. Looper had stayed with Bond for a while, talking a great deal about how he had murdered his Senate opponent and how he needed to, among other things, change the tires on the car he had used in the murder, as well as hide the car.
Looper was arraigned at a hearing that featured Bond as a surprise witness for the state. During the pre-trial phase, Looper attempted to have his former friend disgraced, and shuffled through at least six lawyers, one of whom filed a sealed court document explaining why, for ethical reasons, he could no longer be Looper's attorney.
The campaign following the murder
Tennessee state law required that the name of a candidate who died before the election be removed from the ballot, and it did not allow the candidate's party to replace a deceased candidate who died within 30 days of the election. Accordingly, after Burks' death, Looper became the only candidate listed on the official ballot for Burks' senate seat. This may have been Looper's intention.
Several people tried to have Looper's name stricken from the ballot, claiming that Looper's arrest constituted moral turpitude. The state Republican Party distanced itself from Looper. To prevent Looper from winning the state senate seat on a technicality, Burks' widow, Charlotte was put forth as a write-in candidate for her husband's seat. Dozens of volunteers helped her campaign, including some Republicans. On election day, Charlotte Burks, as a write-in candidate, won the seat with 30,252 votes against Looper's 1,531 votes. One of her first initiatives as state senator was to introduce legislation to ensure that the name of any candidate who dies within 40 days of an election could remain on the ballot, thus preventing the situation that occurred after her husband's death. Charlotte Burks remained on the state senate until retiring after the 2014 election; she won re-election in 2002, 2006, and 2010.
Murder conviction and sentence
Looper's jury trial for murder finally occurred in 2000 after several delays as Looper changed attorneys and his attorneys filed motions requesting changes in the judge and trial location. The trial was not moved, but jurors were brought in from Sullivan County to reduce the chance that the jury would have been influenced by pre-trial publicity. By the time of the trial, a work crew had found the weapon apparently used in the murder at the junction of TN 111 and I-40.
Wes Rex and Joe Bond were both prominent witnesses for the prosecution, as were two political consultants who reported having been contacted at various times by Looper, who had told both of them that he wanted to run a political race and felt the surest way to win would be to murder the opponent. The prosecuting attorney, Tony Craighead, told the jury that Looper had intended to "win this election with a Smith & Wesson." For his defense, Looper tried to rely on testimony from his mother and her neighbors, who said he was visiting his mother's home in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on the morning that Burks died, but witnesses he produced to support his alibi were excluded from testifying because they had not been identified to the court before the trial, as required. Despite overwhelming forensic and eyewitness evidence presented at trial, Looper's mother maintained her son's innocence to his death and beyond.
In August 2000, Looper was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole. The victim's family had requested that prosecutors not seek the death penalty. Following his conviction and sentencing, he was transferred to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee. Brushy Mountain Penitentiary closed in 2009; Looper moved to the Morgan County Correctional Complex.
In 2001 or 2002, Looper sued a TV station and individual station personnel for depicting him unfavorably in a broadcast interview.
He also filed a lawsuit against Tennessee Department of Correction personnel and the contractor that provided medical services in Tennessee prisons, charging that the conditions of his confinement were unconstitutional and that he was not receiving adequate medical care. In that suit he asked for $47 million in damages. He also filed several unsuccessful motions to overturn his conviction.
Looper was found dead in his prison cell on June 26, 2013. Nearly two hours before Looper was found, a prison incident report shows he assaulted a pregnant female counselor and had to be restrained. An autopsy revealed he died from a heart condition caused by a combination of high blood pressure, hardening arteries and a toxic level of anti-depressants.
Other political candidates and public personalities have emulated Looper's adopted name or have independently adopted similar names. Among these is Internet personality Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka, who adopted his nickname as a reference to Byron Looper, for whom Kyanka nearly worked as an intern in the summer of 1997. In 1998, a candidate with the name Craig 'Tax Freeze' Freis ran for the California Board of Equalization. He finished fourth place (out of six candidates running) in the Democratic Primaries for the office.
In Los Angeles County, a candidate by the name of John "Lower Taxes" Loew has run in every election for county assessor between 2000 and 2018. He explained that he changed his name in order to send a message about his political positions.  In 2000, Loew received less than 1% of the vote in the special election to fill a vacancy in the office. In 2002 and 2006, Loew lost the elections to incumbent Rick Auerbach by a 70%–11% margin in 2002, and by a 77%–23% margin in 2006. Loew ran again in 2010, where he finished in third place with 10.6% of the vote. In 2014 he finished in fourth place with 9.47% of the vote. In 2018 Loew again ran with the name "Lower Taxes" on the ballot and ended up in 2nd place with 23.58%, forcing incumbent Jeffrey Prang into a runoff.
- Allen G. Breed (October 24, 1998). "Suspect ran relentlessly for political office". Associated Press. Retrieved June 5, 2012. (subscription required)
- "Political opponent charged in slaying". Deseret News. October 23, 1998. Retrieved March 22, 2009.[permanent dead link]
- Moehringer, J.R. (October 24, 1998). "Tennessee Lawmaker Killed; Election Opponent Arrested". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 22, 2009.
- "Byron "Low Tax" Looper seeks new trial", AccessNorthGA.com, Jacobs Media, September 26, 2002, archived from the original on October 15, 2014, retrieved June 7, 2012
- Krista Reese (August 27, 2000). "High Drama in Tenn. Trial of 'Low Tax' Candidate Convicted of Killing Incumbent". Boston Globe. Retrieved June 5, 2012. (subscription required)
- Sue Anne Pressley (October 23, 1998). "In Tennessee, a Lawmaker Dies and His Rival Vanishes; Police Seek to Question GOP Challenger In Shooting That Shook Rural Community". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 5, 2012. (subscription required)
- Final Ouster Appeal State ex rel. Jones v. Looper, 86 SW 3d 189 – Tenn: Court of Appeals, Middle Section
- Karen Beyke (February 2009). "The Ins and Outs of Ouster" (PDF). Tennessee Municipal Attorneys' Association. pp. 11–12. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-06-11.
- Jill Jordan Sieder (November 2, 1998). "A Tragic Southern Twist (Republican charged with murder of Democratic Senator Tommy Burks)". Newsweek. Retrieved June 5, 2012. (subscription required)
- "Farmhand saw suspect with murdered state senator, heard 'pop'". CNN. October 27, 1998. Archived from the original on February 29, 2008. Retrieved August 18, 2008.
- "Widow of Tennessee Senator Defeats Rival Accused in Slaying". Los Angeles Times. November 4, 1998.
- "The 1998 Elections; Candidate's Widow Wins in Tennessee". New York Times. November 5, 1998.
- "Tennessee State Senate General Election Results, November 3, 1998 General Election" (PDF). Tennessee Secretary of State. Retrieved August 18, 2008.
- "Bill keeps the dead on ballot". Tuscaloosa News. December 12, 1998. p. 2B.
- "Campaign Murder Trial Begins". ABC News. August 14, 2000.
- Jason Strait (August 23, 2000). "Tennessee politician found guilty". Associated Press Online. Retrieved 2012-06-06. (subscription required)
- Matt Pulle (October 10, 2003). "Tales from Brushy Mountain". Nashville Scene.
Currently, Byron “Low Tax” Looper, the Tennessee politician who shot and killed State Sen. Tommy Burks in 1998, resides at Brushy in a tiny cell littered with legal papers.
- "Inmate Photos". Tennessee Department of Correction. Retrieved June 6, 2012. Looper is among the inmates whose photos are in a collection of "most frequently requested" prison inmate photos; he is listed as TOMIS #323358, Morgan County Correctional Complex.
- "American Justice - Episode Guide - A&E TV". American Justice. A&E TV. Retrieved June 29, 2013.
- "Convicted murderer "Low Tax" Looper sues prison medical manager over health care". Nashville Post. January 9, 2002.
- "Looper's Appeal Denied". Knoxville, Tennessee: WBIR TV. June 8, 2001.
- ""Low Tax" Looper seeking new trial on murder conviction". Knoxville, Tennessee: WATE-TV. October 12, 2004. Archived from the original on November 24, 2004. Retrieved June 7, 2012.
- "Court Rejects Appeal Of Looper's Murder Conviction". Nashville: NewsChannel5 WTVF-TV. June 3, 2008. Archived from the original on June 30, 2013. Retrieved June 7, 2012.
- "TBI: (Low Tax) Looper had 'heart event' before prison death". Knoxville News Sentinel. June 28, 2013.
- Election results for the June 2, 1998 elections Archived February 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine., page 42.
- Esparza, Christina (May 30, 2006). "Lower Taxes not just a slogan". Daily Breeze.
- Sewell, Abby (March 30, 2014). "Candidates for L.A. County assessor tangle over tax policy in debate". Los Angeles Times.
- Final Official Election Returns, Los Angeles County, November 7, 2000 General Election
- http://rrcc.co.la.ca.us/elect/02031211/rr1211pn.html-ssi 70-11
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2006-06-13. 77-23
- Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters election results for County Assessor, 2010
- June 3, 2014 Los Angeles County primary election results
- June 5, 2018 Los Angeles County primary election results
- Mark Gribben, Assassination in Middle Tennessee, Crime Library: Notorious Murderers (Turner Entertainment Networks). Court TV account of the Looper case.