Knox D.A. Declines to Press Charges in Austin-East Shooting

Apr 21, 2021

In a two-hour press conference, district attorney Charme Allen showed reporters text messages, police body camera footage and forensic evidence from the investigation into the police killing of Anthony Thompson Jr.
Credit Claire Heddles

A Knoxville police officer who shot and killed Austin-East High School student Anthony Thompson, Jr., April 12 was justified in his actions, Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen said Wednesday. No charges will be filed.

Knoxville Police Department officer Jonathon Clabough told investigators he saw Thompson’s gun and thought two other officers were in danger, leading him to draw his weapon and fire at Thompson. According to Allen, Clabough said he believed another officer, Brian Baldwin, had been hit and that Lt. Stanley Cash would be next. Neither officer was hit by a bullet from Thompson’s gun. That bullet penetrated a nearby trash can. 

Video evidence was shown publicly for the first time at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. Allen said she fulfilled her pledge to release the footage only after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation completed its probe into the shooting, and after Allen could meet with Thompson’s family and review the evidence.

Allen said Thompson’s family asked her not to release the video, but Allen said she did so anyway because she had formerly committed to do so, and was under political pressure. Mayor Kincannon told reporters she would have supported waiting until after Thompson's funeral, which is Thursday morning, to release the footage, but that the district attorney had not asked her opinion on the matter. 

In explaining her rationale that Clabough’s shooting was lawful, Allen said the officer had only seconds to interpret what he was seeing in the chaotic environment of a scuffle inside a restroom at Austin-East. Allen said her determination was made based on two Tennessee statutes and a 1989 Supreme Court decision that apply to situations in which someone has reasonable cause to fear for their life or someone else’s.

Clabough told investigators he thought he saw the barrel of a gun poking out of Thompson's hoodie, pointed at Baldwin, then Cash. Viewing the video in real-time, Allen said, made clear that Clabough had a reasonable fear for his own life and those of Baldwin and Cash. 

The footage shows Thompson's gun was fired once, toward the ground. That gun later fell to the floor and was out of Thompson’s reach when Clabough fired at the student a second time. According to Allen, the officers said they didn’t realize the student no longer had a gun. 

Clabough, Baldwin and Cash arrived at the school to arrest Thompson on a domestic violence charge. There, they met school resource officer Adam Willson. The four officers were informed Thompson was in a restroom and they went in to confront him. A scuffle broke out, during which Clabough and Cash’s body cameras fell off. Willson’s was not operating, leaving only Baldwin’s camera as the start-to-finish record of the shooting from the officer’s point of view.

All the involved officers were permitted to watch their own body camera footage before giving witness statements during the TBI’s investigation, Allen said. Officer Wilson, who’s camera had fallen off, was permitted to watch another officers' body camera footage before giving a statement. 

In the interchange, which lasted about eleven seconds, Clabough’s bullets hit Thompson and Willson. The bullet that hit Thompson pierced the 17-year-old’s lungs and heart. A doctor described the wounds as a “non-recoverable, life-ending injury,” Allen said. 

Another student was on the ground in the bathroom pleading with the officers to help Thompson, who was bleeding. Officer Cash remained on Thompson’s back attempting to handcuff the student for two minutes before any officer called for medical help. 

Anthony Thompson was pronounced dead at the scene after paramedics arrived. Willson underwent surgery to address his leg wound, which was non-life threatening.

Speaking to reporters shortly after 6:00 p.m., Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon expressed sorrow about Thompson's death and said the video was difficult to watch. She also said she believes the footage and other evidence supports Allen's decision not to press charges. She described the reasonable fear as "a fair conclusion.”

District Attorney Allen told reporters she has worked on more than a dozen officer-involved shootings during her time in the role. She has not pressed charges against an officer in any of them. 

This is a developing story and has been updated.