A Criminal Court jury on Friday night found Jason Sanford not guilty in the 2000 strangulation death of an East Ridge woman.
The defense put on no proof.
Sanford spent two and a half years in jail awaiting trial in the Cold Case.
Earlier on Friday, a Michigan man gave a deathbed statement that his first cousin had admitted killing Sarah Davis Perry.
The jury heard the videoed statement from Mitchell Penterics, who visibly struggled through the two-hour deposition with effects from his spreading cancer.
His cousin, Sanford, was taken to Michigan from the Hamilton County Jail to sit in on the statement. Sanford stood trial in the courtroom of Judge Tom Greenholtz. Judge Greenholtz had sent the case on to the jury on the single charge of first-degree murder though defense attorney Amanda Dunn said pre-meditation had not been proven. Attorney Johnny Houston also defended Sanford.
Penterics said he moved to Chattanooga in 1999. He said, "I had won a lawsuit and I just wanted to get out of Michigan." He said he went to computer school and took a job at Convergys, where he met the eventual murder victim Sarah Davis Perry. He said he introduced her to Sanford, who had joined him in Chattanooga.
He said Sanford and Ms. Perry began living together, though he said their relationship was "rocky. They fought a lot." Questioned by District Attorney Neal Pinkston, he agreed they both had drug problems.
The witness said in the evening of June 15, 2000, that Sanford came over to his residence and told him, "I killed Sarah. I need money for a bus ticket." He said he eventually agreed to provide the money and take Sanford to the Greyhound station.
He said Sanford gave no other details of the slaying.
Penterics said he did not call police because "I just didn't know what to do." He said he "stayed in Chattanooga another year or so" before returning to Michigan. He said he had a "cordial" relationship with Sanford once they both were again in their home state.
Penterics, who is now deceased, said he was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2011 and it spread to other parts of his body, including his brain.
The jury on Thursday heard a jail call in which Sanford discussed with his mother and his cousin ways to get his cousin to remain quiet about knowledge he had of a 2000 murder.
Sanford told Penterics, "Keep your chin up and your mouth shut."
That came just a few days after Sanford was charged with the strangulation murder of the 21-year-old Ms. Perry in East Ridge. Her body was found stuffed in a garbage can under a bridge at Spring Creek.
In the phone call, Penterics told Sanford, "I don't know how to tell you this, but it's really bad. Unfortunately, they got me to say something. I said something bad. I shouldn't have said it. I just feel really bad."
He said police had threatened him and wanted him to wear a wire and try to get Sanford to talk. He said he refused to do that.
Police in the DA's Cold Case Unit afterward learned that Penterics had become terminally ill. It was hastily arrange to take his deposition at his Michigan home with Sanford and his attorney present. The jury on Friday morning was to hear the two-hour death-bed statement. It was to be the state's final proof.
In a call from the jail to his mother, Sanford discussed how she could call the mother of Penterics concerning the cousin's telling on him. Sanford said, "Be careful how you say it, but let them know."
He also said, "My lawyer seems to feel that he is going to stick to his guns and tell the same story."
The mother said, "That makes me sad."
Sanford replied, "Me too."
The jury also heard a tape of detective Brian Ashburn of the Cold Case team interviewing Sanford. The detective said, "Now is the time to lay it all out on the table. We didn't come all the way up here from Tennessee just to drive around."
The detective had interviewed the cousin the day before, and he arrested Sanford at the end of the interview with him.
Sanford denied any involvement, saying, "I don't remember seeing her after she got out (of Valley Psychiatric Hospital)." He said, "I wanted nothing more than to be away from her."
Ms. Perry, who had two children, left the facility against the wishes of the staff on the evening of Tuesday, June 13. She was seen alive for the last time on Wednesday morning. The garbage can that her body was stuffed in was taken from Fine's Body Shop on that Wednesday night. The body was discovered and Sanford left town on Thursday, the 15th.
A witness who had not been questioned by police earlier testified that she saw a man she identified as Sanford drive slowly past her and then back by in an older white pickup truck. She said she afterward saw the same pickup at the creek and the garbage can was no longer in it. She said she could tell it had been dragged under the bridge.
Attorney Amanda Dunn said the witness, Mary Ruth Boyd, said the man had shaggy hair. She produced a booking photo taken a couple of months before the slaying that showed Sanford with a short haircut. She said Sanford did not have a white pickup truck and no other witness tied him to that type vehicle.
She also noted that semen found in the victim did not match that of Sanford.
Dr. Stephen Cogswell, assistant medical examiner, said Ms. Perry was strangled to death with some type of ligature (cord or similar item) and possibly also suffocated, according to the autopsy by Dr. Frank King. He said from the marks on her neck that someone had come up behind her.
He said she had a broken nail on her left thumb, indicating a possible struggle.