KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Jurors found one defendant guilty Thursday of first-degree murder and two others guilty on a lesser charge of facilitation of first-degree murder in the 2015 death of a Tennessee teen who was lauded for courageously shielding his friends from gunfire.
Christopher Drone Bassett, 22, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of 15-year-old Zaevion Dobson, a promising high school football player whose act of bravery drew praise from then-President Barack Obama. Kipling Deshawn Colbert, 22, and Richard Gregory Williams III, 23, also had been facing first-degree murder charges but were instead found guilty of facilitating the murder.
"Today is about justice for Zaevion Dobson and his family," Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen said afterward.
Sentencing for all three is scheduled for Feb. 2. Bassett faces an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole for 51 years.
"We respectfully disagree with the jury's verdict," said T. Scott Jones, the lawyer representing Bassett. "We think that we presented evidence that would have created reasonable doubt, and we expect to fully explore that relative to a motion for a new trial, and if (that) is denied, a subsequent appeal."
Dobson was on a back porch with friends on Dec. 17, 2015, when shots were fired. Police said Dobson suffered a fatal gunshot wound while shielding two girls, who were unhurt.
"Zaevion is a wonderful example to each and every one of us," Allen said. "He was a selfless young man who gave his life protecting the lives of his friends. Today is a perfect example of justice being sought exactly where it needs to be sought — in a court of law, not on the streets of our community."
All three defendants reacted stoically as the verdict was read. Dobson's mother, Zenobia Dobson, sat in the front row of the courtroom as she had throughout the nearly two-week trial.
She wore a T-shirt with the number 24, which had been Zaevion's jersey number as a football player at Fulton High School in Knoxville. On the back of her shirt were the messages "We Are One!" and "Family! Faith! Football!" with a picture of the Fulton High football team.
Although a single gunshot killed Dobson, prosecutors said all three defendants were criminally responsible because they aided in the commission of the offense. Prosecutors said at least 34 shots were fired from at least four different guns in the attack, carried out in the Lonsdale section of Knoxville.
According to the state's case, a Knoxville man named Brandon Perry was angry that his mother had gotten shot earlier in the day and was accompanied by a group as he headed to Lonsdale to fire shots out of anger. Perry was killed in a separate shooting later that night.
"The reality of it is we now have five families that have lost a child," Jones said. "Brandon Perry is deceased. Zaevion Dobson is deceased. Their families are suffering and now we have these three young men who are going to be removed from their families."
All three defendants were found guilty of numerous other felonies.
Bassett was convicted of five counts of attempted first-degree murder, three counts of attempted second-degree murder, eight counts of employment of a firearm during commission of a dangerous felony and two counts of unlawful possession of a weapon.
Colbert and Williams were convicted of five counts of facilitation of attempted first-degree murder, three counts of facilitation of attempted second-degree murder and eight counts of facilitation of employment of a firearm during commission of a dangerous felony.
Bassett had spoken to a police investigator the night of the shooting. After initially saying in the interview he didn't accompany Perry — his cousin — to Lonsdale that night, Bassett later acknowledged being there. Bassett said he fired about five shots straight into the air without aiming at anyone.
Jones said in his closing argument that police investigator A.J. Loeffler "lied" and "cajoled' his client during that interview.
Defense lawyers criticized the state's use of a rap video featuring the defendants as evidence they participated in gang-related activity. They noted the video was recorded months before Dobson's death.
Colbert's lawyer, Rhonda Lee, said during closing arguments the video only showed Colbert wanted to be a rapper. Lee vowed to appeal.
Prosecutors noted at trial that a handgun found under Williams' seat during a January 2016 traffic stop fired the bullet that killed Dobson. Kit Rodgers, Williams' lawyer, said during closing arguments that his client wasn't driving the car and didn't own the vehicle.
Williams was convicted earlier this year of attempted murder in the shooting of Larry North, a reluctant witness for the state in this trial. Williams received a 36-year prison sentence in that case.