Bill would require police, TBI to probe deaths on campus
This article was originally published in the August 24, 2003 issue of the Kingsport Times-News, and is reprinted here with permission.
By HANK HAYES
KINGSPORT - State Rep. Nathan Vaughn is developing legislation that would have made the college campus death of James Robert "Robbie" Nottingham, 22, subject to a mandatory probe by either the local police department or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Vaughn, D-Kingsport, confirmed he has been talking about the bill's contents with the parents of Nottingham, who died March 21 outside his Buccaneer Ridge apartment on the East Tennessee State University campus in Johnson City.
"The big problem for me appears to be the inconsistency across the state with our public universities as to how serious crimes get investigated," Vaughn said of the possible legislation. "Right now, it's up to the institution to determine whether or not they call someone else in to investigate a serious crime or whether or not they do it themselves."
ETSU officials contend Nottingham died from massive head trauma after falling from a porch roof.
Nottingham's parents, Jim and Mary Nottingham, believe their son may have been murdered and are offering $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone who may have been responsible for their son's death. ETSU officials say there was no foul play associated with Nottingham's death.
Ed Kelly, an attorney representing ETSU, said he does not believe the school should have turned the investigation over to the Johnson City Police Department or the TBI.
State Rep. Nathan Vaughn
"There was no evidence whatsoever that would call for an outside agency that doesn't have jurisdiction to investigate," Kelly said. "We did ask the TBI, who determined it wasn't necessary. We also had the district attorney saying it wasn't necessary.
"There's not one iota of evidence to indicate that the investigation was anything other than appropriate."
Kelly also said Vaughn's legislation would be fine.
"We were always willing to turn it over to TBI," he said.
In putting the legislation together, Vaughn said he is concerned with funding cuts state government has made to higher education, which in turn have been handed down to university public safety departments.
"I've talked to the folks at East Tennessee State," Vaughn said. "They've indicated to me they are down a couple of officers. When you're in a position of investigating a serious crime, in many instances there are a tremendous amount of resources necessary to do the investigation. In many instances, what happens is you need experienced officers who do that all the time. If you're investigating a homicide, you need a homicide investigator who has experience and does it all the time.
"I am in no way pointing a finger at East Tennessee State or any other university. What I want to bring about is some stability to the process as to how a serious crime gets investigated."
Vaughn described his conversations with ETSU public safety officials as cordial, but he added a phone conversation with District Attorney General Joe Crumley wasn't.
"He hung up on me," Vaughn said of Crumley. "That was unfortunate. The last thing I wanted to do is create any kind of appearance of animosity. When I spoke to (District Attorney) Crumley, he was adamant there were too much questions being asked of him, that the Nottinghams were involving too many people in this process, and he just hung up."
Crumley noted that other Northeast Tennessee legislators, along with Vaughn, have called him about the Nottingham case.
"It was getting to the point it was starting to feel like harassment," Crumley said of the phone conversation with Vaughn. "I don't even know the man, and out of the blue he calls me up with an accusatory tone and was, I felt like, harassing me. ... I thought it was at the point of harassment. Pure and simple."
Vaughn noted his legislation is currently targeted only at public institutions because most private colleges generally have small, non-certified security forces that need assistance from local law enforcement anyway.
When a student dies on campus at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, UT Police are first on the scene, said UT spokesman John Clark.
"Then, under an agreement signed with the Knoxville Police Department, UT Police always call in the Knoxville police whereby they investigate any crimes against a person," Clark added. "Even if it is a death by natural causes of a student on campus, the police are called in - both campus and Knoxville police departments."
An on-campus homicide case was cleared by the two groups working together last year, according to UT Police.
TBI Assistant Director Mark Gwyn said there's no question what will happen if Vaughn's anticipated bill is passed by the General Assembly.
"If the legislature asks us to do it, we'll do it," said Gwyn. "That's all we can say."
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