KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An out-of-work truck driver smiled Monday as he pleaded guilty to killing two people and wounding six others at a Tennessee church last summer because he considered the liberal church “a den of un-American vipers.”
“Yes, ma’am, I am guilty as charged,” Jim D. Adkisson, 58, told Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz before she sentenced him to life in prison without parole on two counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder.
Adkisson was scheduled to stand trial next month in the July 2008 rampage at the Tennessee Valley United Unitarian Church in Knoxville, but decided to enter a plea deal that virtually guarantees he will never leave prison alive.
Public defender Mark Stephens said a mental-health expert determined Adkisson was competent to make the plea, though Stephens was prepared to argue at trial that his client was insane at the time of the crime. Adkisson believed entering the plea was “the honorable thing to do,” Stephens said.
Assistant District Attorney Leslie Nassios said Adkisson gave a statement to police and left a suicide note. They showed he planned the attack on the church, where his ex-wife was once a member, because he hated the church’s liberal politics and Democrats, who he believed “were responsible for his woes.”
The Unitarian Universalist Church promotes progressive social work, including advocacy of women and gay rights.
“This was a hate crime,” Adkisson wrote in the four-page suicide letter obtained by The Knoxville News Sentinel. “This was a symbolic killing. Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the House and Senate ... [and] everyone in the mainstream media. But these people were inaccessible to me.
“I couldn’t get to the generals and high-ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chicken [expletive] liberals that vote in these traitorous people.”
The Tennessee Valley United Unitarian Church, he wrote, was “a den of un-American vipers.”
The prosecutor’s office refused to release the letter to The Associated Press, saying it was not part of court records and could still be used if Adkisson rescinds his plea in the next 30 days. Stephens did not return several calls to the AP.
Nassios said Adkisson bought the shotgun a month before the attack, sawed off the barrel at his home and carried the weapon into the church in a guitar case that he bought two days before the shooting. He had more than 70 shotgun shells with him and planned to keep firing until officers killed him, police have said. But church members intervened and wrestled him to the ground.
Victims and church members wept as the prosecutor described the wounds that killed longtime church member Greg McKendry, 60, who blocked the shots from hitting others, and retired English professor Linda Kraeger, who had come to see a play at the church. The church honored them during a 60th anniversary celebration on Sunday.
Two survivors each lost vision in one eye, one was left in a coma for several days after the shooting and another has endured several follow-up surgeries since.
“I think I am going to move on,” said victim Tammy Sommers, 38, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and only recently returned to work. “But he is in prison ... and I want him to stay in prison.”
Several church members believed Adkisson showed no remorse.
“When he came into the courtroom, he had a look of sheer evil on his face. He really did. Evil as well as arrogance,” said Vicki Masters, who directed the children’s play.