Black clergy and DA clash in racially charged Tennessee rally over police chief’s prosecution

A group of Black clergy members held a rally in Tennessee on Monday, claiming that criminal charges against the now resigned Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy are motivated by race — but the local district attorney shot back at them moments later, accusing them of playing the race card and not really caring about Black lives. 

The tense standoff took place outside Hamilton County District Attorney Coty Wamp’s office, where more than a dozen Black faith leaders slammed the 17-count indictment as “an unjust and politically motivated persecution.” Murphy is accused of lying on several official documents about living at a Chattanooga City address. 

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) said it conducted an investigation that revealed Murphy was still claiming an address in Fulton County, Georgia, as her official residence while registering to vote in Hamilton County using a Chattanooga, Tennessee, address. At the time, her contract for Chattanooga’s police chief job required that she be a city resident, according to WTVC. 

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Murphy’s Tennessee voter registration conflicted with a property tax exemption she receives in Fulton County by claiming a home there as her primary residence, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in March. Both documents were signed under penalty of perjury.

However, the Black leaders said Monday that the prosecution is race-driven and maintain that she is innocent until proven guilty. Murphy announced her resignation the day before the TBI announced the indictment. 

“These allegations are just that — allegations in our legal system,” Rev. Ernest Reid of Second Missionary Baptist Church said. “One is innocent until proven guilty. This attempt to discredit an African American woman in leadership reeks of petty partisan politics with dangerous outcomes if applied uniformly.”

Reid said Murphy’s record showed she had a record of being tough on crime since being sworn in as police chief in April 2022, citing a homicide investigation closure rate of 90%, which is well above the national average. Chattanooga City, with a population of about 182,000, is located in Hamilton County.

“She has challenged the status quo, advocating for a fair and impartial environment her [sic] commitment to high standards independent thinking and community engagement has made a tangible positive difference,” Reid said, per WTVC. “We are not addressing individuals, but a pervasive spirit of resistance to change and justice.”                                                 

The rally took place in front of Wamp’s office, even though she is not the one prosecuting Murphy.

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The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported Wamp was at the gathering and listened to the group before then speaking herself. 

Wamp has said her office was not involved in making the complaint, and the case will be handled by a prosecutor from outside the county after Wamp recused herself.

“When you do the right thing as the district attorney, and you take it completely out of your hands, you send it to a different agency outside of Hamilton County, who then request a formal TBI investigation, it doesn’t matter because opportunists don’t care about facts,” Wamp said, per the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “I cannot and will not comment on Chief Murphy’s investigation or indictment because I do not know anything about it other than what I’ve read in the news media.”

Wamp, who is White and a Republican, then clapped back at the Black clergy members and asked them why they had not been outspoken about crime impacting Chattanooga’s Black community. She said that last year 77% of homicides in Chattanooga claimed the lives of Black men, women and children.

“Of all of those that were cleared, which we know that rate is high, every single one was a Black perpetrator,” Wamp said. “I don’t recall a press conference speaking out against those killers. I don’t recall a press conference where you stand up and are the voice of victims. Maybe I wasn’t invited to that one.”

“I do not recall a press release or a press conference in which you call for a cease-fire in your own community… you are losing dozens of members of your community every single year,” Wamp continued, per WTVC.

“Last year, 14 young men had to be transferred to be tried in this courthouse because of the seriousness of the offenses they commit. I don’t recall seeing you all at juvenile court. I don’t recall seeing you in juvenile court trying to reach young men and women before they take it too far.”

“You have not darkened the door of our juvenile court. I have prosecutors working in every single one of these courts today. I don’t recall any of you being in our criminal courts when a jury returns a verdict of guilty and my office is sitting next to the mothers holding their hands. I don’t recall seeing any one of you here. You see my office doesn’t get to pick and choose what we care about. We don’t show up when politics is involved. We don’t come out here to divide the community over one case.”

She said the group had met with Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, a Democrat, before the rally, and he had a hand in organizing it, although his office denied being involved in the plan, per local reports.  

Wamp said she is not up for re-election until next year and did not care about the group’s politics.

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Reid and the clergy, meanwhile, called for Murphy to be given the full payout of her annual $177,700 contract, which was renewed for another year in March. Murphy is set to receive a 90-day severance of $44,000. 

They also demanded lawmakers limit the disclosure of addresses and other personal information that could put “key city and county officials and leaders at risk,” per the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Murphy has been charged with one count of illegal voter registration, one count of false entries on official registration or election documents, three counts of false entries in governmental records, three counts of forgery, three counts of perjury, and six counts of official misconduct, per a TBI statement. 

The agency says Murphy surrendered Thursday morning at Hamilton County Jail before being booked and released after posting a $19,000 bond.