Zaevion Dobson, a former Fulton football player, would have been a member of the 2018 senior class. Diana C. Nearhos, USA TODAY – Tennessee
Was it a battle over gang territory or a beef over a woman that led to the fatal shooting of an innocent 15-year-old boy later hailed as a hero, and does motive even matter?
Those were the questions raised Tuesday in opening statements in the trial of three young men accused in the fatal shooting of Fulton High School football player Zaevion Dobson.
Christopher Drone Bassett, 22, Richard Gregory Williams III, 23, and Kipling Colbert Jr., 22, are standing trial in Knox County Criminal Court on charges including first-degree murder and eight counts of attempted murder in a brazen shooting in the middle of a street in Lonsdale in December 2015.
Of the more than 30 shots fired — via four different guns — Dobson was the only one among a group of friends hanging out after a basketball game who was struck. Assistant District Attorney General Phil Morton told jurors Tuesday a single bullet struck Dobson.
“Zaevion was hit with one bullet, cracking his rib, perforating his lung,” Morton said.
Dobson’s friends say he died shielding two teenage girls who thought the sudden eruption of noise they heard were firecrackers and were slow to react. His death became a nationwide symbol of gun violence and, in Knoxville, of gang violence. Posthumously, Dobson would garner attention from then-President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address and a prestigious sports award honoring his courage.
ESPN produced a short documentary on Zaevion Dobson, who was killed protecting his friends from gunfire. Courtesy of ESPN Films
Prosecutor: Gang rivalry at root of slaying
Police quickly labeled Dobson’s death gang-related, and Morton outlined for jurors Tuesday the decadeslong territorial divide among rival gangs in Knoxville’s inner city he says was at the heart of Dobson’s slaying.
The “east side” — low-income neighborhoods in East Knoxville — has long been the territory of street gangs affiliated with the Bloods, while the “west side” — low-income neighborhoods in Northwest Knoxville — has been claimed by Crips-affiliated gang members.
Dobson wasn’t a gang member. Neither was his brother, who was there in Lonsdale on the night Dobson was slain, nor his friends. But Morton told jurors that didn’t matter to Brandon Perry, who, Morton said, rounded up a posse of fellow Bloods to exact revenge on the “west side” for a shooting at his mother’s home in East Knoxville earlier that day.
Morton said Bassett, Williams and Colbert were part of that posse. He identified two other young men as part of that same group, though none of them have been charged. One of those two uncharged suspects was later shot by Williams after being labeled a “snitch” and is expected to testify against Bassett, Williams and Colbert.
In a legally controversial move, Morton used screenshots from a rap video posted on YouTube seven months before Dobson was slain as proof of the trio’s gang affiliation. The video is entitled “loyalty is everything.” In it, the trio of suspects and a handful of other young men are seen lip-syncing to a song about gang allegiance.
According to Morton, Bassett, Williams, Colbert, Perry and the two other young men suited up in black clothing, armed themselves with guns, drove to a community park in Lonsdale, parked, walked as a group onto Badgett Drive and opened fire, spraying bullets along an entire block.
A few hours later, someone exacted revenge on Perry, fatally shooting him while he was behind the wheel of Bassett’s car and headed into an apartment complex in East Knoxville. His slaying remains unsolved.
But attorney T. Scott Jones, who represents Bassett, told jurors his client isn’t a gang member. He’s Perry’s cousin. He told jurors Dobson was slain amid a series of shootings that had nothing to do with gang rivalry but instead centered on a dispute involving Perry’s girlfriend, Jasmine Mason.
“This isn’t gangs,” he said. “This isn’t ‘loyalty is everything.’”
Jones said the fatal series of events began a few hours before Dobson was slain when Paul Cornelius, the brother of the imprisoned father of Mason’s children, called Mason a derogatory name. He said the name-calling enraged Perry, and he wound up opening fire in the Western Heights community of Northwest Knoxville in a shooting targeting Cornelius.
“We get a testosterone contest going on,” he said.
Two hours later, at least two gunmen opened fire on Perry’s mother’s home in East Knoxville. She was struck in the back but survived.
Jones conceded Bassett has admitted he went with Perry to Lonsdale and fired a gun into the air. But he said the bullet that struck Dobson was later linked to a gun found under Williams’ seat in a car stopped by police months after Dobson died.
He told jurors that prosecutors Morton and TaKisha Fitzgerald want to label the shooting as gang-related so jurors will paint all the same suspects with the same brush of guilt. He mocked their use of the rap video.
“We’re going to show it to you white folks (on the jury) to scare you,” he said, adding the video was nothing more than teenage “stupidity.” “They’re not displaying guns (in the video). They’re not capping anybody.”
Morton and Fitzgerald are relying on a legal theory known as criminal responsibility — the notion that anyone who helps someone commit a crime is just as guilty.
Colbert’s attorney, Rhonda Lee, said her client was innocent. Attorney Kit Rodgers, who represents Williams, told jurors to “look at the actual evidence.”
“Don’t get caught up in the story,” he told jurors.
The trial continues Wednesday.