Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman on Thursday sentenced Douglas Cody Gass to 14 years after he earlier pled guilty to vehicular homicide and other charges. During the 2019 chase, his vehicle crashed. Gass ran while Kobe Burchfield was trapped inside and burned after oil leaking on the car was ignited. Burchfield passed away from his injuries the next day. Gass fled to Florida, but was later arrested and taken back to Chattanooga.
Judge Steelman said the first 10 years must be served in the Department of Corrections, and the last four on probation for a 10-year period. If Gass violates probation at any point in those 10 years, he will have to go back to prison and serve the additional four years.
“Just within seconds of hitting that pole, he almost T-boned another vehicle,” Judge Steelman said.
“That risk to life was extremely high. I think he shows little or no regard for human life when he leaves his childhood friend he allegedly loves and cares for to burn, while he gets away.”
After witnesses testified in favor of and against Gass, the defendant gave a two-minute allocution. He said everything happened quickly, and nobody ever told him to stop before the fatal crash occurred. He told the court he planned on changing his life, and wanted to eventually help those who are thinking of making similar decisions. Gass also apologized to Kobe Burchfield’s family. Gass and Burchfield’s friendship was the topic of much of the witness testimony during the earlier parts of the sentencing.
“I made a mistake I’m living with for the rest of my life,” Gass said in front of a full gallery. “I can’t change that now, but all I can do is be the best I can be and change my life for other people.”
While allocutions are not considered testimony, prosecutor Andrew Coyle was incredulous at the suggestion that nobody told Gass to stop. He asked for consecutive sentences, saying that while Gass’ criminal history is mostly misdemeanor, most were driving related charges and showed a history of unsafe behavior behind the wheel.
“It was a police chase and we see a lot of those. We don’t see those chases going through residential streets while traffic is on the road,” prosecutor Coyle said. “We have someone go 80 miles per hour, going in and out of lanes, going onto incoming traffic on a one lane road. If any other car had been coming, it would have been a head on collision.
“I hesitate to comment on an allocution, but my goodness what a lack of awareness. Nobody told him to stop? What about the cops going at 80 miles per hour with flashing lights? He ran. He got out of a burning car on its side, and he knew the cops were behind him and he ran. He runs with a person in the passenger seat. This love and growing up together, I don’t see how that helps the defendant. If you can run with your friend in the car……it’s someone who he grew up with who burned to death because he ran.”
Meanwhile, defense attorney Jonathan Wilson argued for a lighter sentence than the consecutive ones Coyle was advocating for. When the prosecutor used testimony from a passenger in the police report to argue that others in the car told him to stop, attorney Wilson said the state should have brought the man to testify if his testimony was important. He also referenced the video that was shown earlier in the morning, and emphasized how quickly everything occurred in the video.
“I think it’s clear how quickly this wreck is happening,” the defense attorney said. “This is not something where he saw a burning car, stopped and pondered it, and then ran. There’s no question he ran from police, but that’s not enough to justify consecutive sentencing.”
Attorney Wilson also told the court most of his client’s previous charges were misdemeanors, and would not be seen as an enhancing factor if looked at by an appellate court, regardless of whether or not they were traffic-related. Instead of prison, he asked for a probationary sentence where his client would frequently go to Nashville to partake in a rehabilitation program. After both sides made their arguments, judge Steelman decided to take a lunch break, as the clock was quickly approaching 1:00 and the court had been in session since 9:00 A.M.
The judge reviewed the arguments during the hour and a half break, and was prepared to pronounce the sentence after everyone had filed back into the room. Judge Steelman found that there was a basis for consecutive sentences, citing Gass’ long list of driving-related offenses, and what he called a “severe disregard for human life” during the high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood. He told the defense that this outweighed the letters of support he had read to the court a few minutes prior.
“The defendant did so much more to expose people to the situation,” Judge Steelman said. “I watched as he passed one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine motor vehicles, not including a 10th semi-truck. Mr. Gass did not appear to have any concern about that.”
Judge Steelman then handed down the sentence: six years for vehicular homicide, four years for evading arrest, and four years for reckless aggravated assault. He said the court would not find giving full probation to be justifiable given the seriousness of the situation that occurred.
“It’s sad, and I wish Mr. Gass could be working and going to lineman school instead,” Judge Steelman said. “I really don’t take any pleasure that Mr. Gass serves time in the Tennessee Department of Corrections. But I think it is just, and anything but confinement would depreciate the serious of this offense.”