Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 8, 2022

Coyle lays down his ‘heavy burden’

Steps away from 7 years as prosecutor to join old colleagues in new venture

Former Hamilton County prosecutor Andrew Coyle is now an associate with Patrick, Beard, Shulman & Jacoway in Chattanooga. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

As Andrew Coyle looks back on seven years as a prosecutor in Hamilton County, he sees the faces of the people his work impacted.

He sees the expressions of family members of victims soften with relief as a jury foreman reads a verdict and justice is achieved.

He sees the face of a defendant the moment after he becomes a convict and realizes he’ll be imprisoned for the rest of his life.

And he sees the incredulity on the faces of the public after he’s pleaded a case that seemed destined to result in a harsh penalty.

“Being a prosecutor was a heavy burden, but I also felt like I was doing something important for my community,” says Coyle, 34.

He also remembers how the lingering effects of a violent crime could taint even his victories, which included convictions of the late Tony Bigoms, who killed and dismembered Dana Wilkes; Randall Reed, who smothered 70-year-old Jane Stokes to death; and Tyrone Murphy, who stabbed 30-year-old Ashley Cates more than 20 times.

“I’ve seen people go to prison for life. Even then, no one won because the victim’s family and the defendant’s family both lost someone.”

Coyle also recalls the sting of public criticism and the outcry of law enforcement after he’d reduced someone’s charges or dismissed a case.

“A defendant is a member of the community I swore to protect, so it felt right when someone who got caught up in a bad situation, or was remorseful for what they did, or was overcharged went from preparing for the worst thing that could happen to them to realizing we were reducing or dropping the charges against them.”

Coyle says his most difficult moments as a prosecutor involved wrestling with pleading a case down to a lesser charge, or fewer charges, when he believed the cost of securing a severe penalty was too great.

“Do you put a child on the stand to relive the crime when the defendant will still serve 80% of the sentence he would get if he were convicted at trial?” he says. “We had to consider a lot of things the public didn’t learn about when the headline was printed the following day.”

When Coyle began his tenure with the district attorney’s office in 2015, he was assigned to division three, which placed him in Judge Don Poole’s courtroom. When he ended his time with the DA in June, he was the supervising prosecutor of division one, which put him in charge of handling every violent crime in Judge Barry Steelman’s courtroom.

Although Coyle prosecuted many heinous crimes, he says focusing on achieving the correct results helped him to safeguard his mental and emotional well-being.

“Getting to the finish line kept me focused. I’d think, ‘If I don’t bear this burden, then I didn’t know who will.’ That’s not a criticism of the other prosecutors, because they’re exceptional, it’s a comment about why we did what we did. We were driven to do it, and if it was a burden, then it was our burden.”

Coyle left the prosecutors office in June to become a litigator at Patrick, Beard, Shulman & Jacoway in Chattanooga. The move followed on the heels of Cody Wamp defeating incumbent Neal Pinkston in the Republican primary for district attorney in Hamilton County.

He says Wamp’s victory did not spur his departure.

“I don’t know who’s going to win [the general election in August]. My hope is whoever wins will do an excellent job.”

Instead, the chance to join Patrick Beard arose as Coyle interacted with Lance Pope and Kristen Williams, two former prosecutors who joined the firm ahead of Coyle.

“I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. Both from a personal and a professional perspective, this is a great place to tackle a new challenge.”

Coyle is getting his feet wet in small matters but sees substantive growth in the days ahead.

“My background is in litigation, which can connect with almost everything this firm does,” he says. “Working as a prosecutor gave me the ability to see things from a global perspective. How will our actions on Day One impact the verdict? How is our decision-making during depositions going to affect how we might handle the appeal if we get that far?

“Those skills can be applied to construction litigation, insurance litigation and even corporate formation. For example, how do we structure something so it protects our client from litigation?”

Coyle says his colleagues at Patrick Beard will school him on the rest.

“I’m working with attorneys who can guide me in the areas in which I’m lacking. It’s a blessing to be around people who have that amount of insight and expertise.”

There is one thing at Patrick Beard that’s familiar to Coyle: where to go when he has a question.

“When I was new at the DA’s office and had to knock on someone’s door, I knocked on Lance Pope’s door. As an associate here, when I need to knock on a door, I knock on Lance’s door.”

Long before Coyle was an attorney, he was a boy growing up in New Orleans. When he was 14, his parents moved to Chattanooga to be close to family.

Coyle was interested in pursuing Christian ministry – his father is an ordained minister and his grandfather was the minister at Signal Mountain Baptist Church – but recalls being more drawn to the law.

“My uncle was a health care attorney in Nashville, and I thought what he did was interesting,” he says. “Then I interned in that capacity in law school and got my fill.”

Coyle earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and his juris doctor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Alabama.

He and his wife, Chelsea, considered moving to either Birmingham or Austin – where he did his fateful health care internships – but they chose the Scenic City instead.

“Every time we came to Chattanooga, it had gotten a little cooler. A lot of changes took place between 2011 and 2014 – and we wanted to be a part of them.”

Criminal law appeared on Coyle’s radar as he interned with Judge Rebecca Stern. While studying for the Tennessee bar exam, he invited Stern to lunch in the hopes of learning more about practicing law in the city. She in turn invited him to work with her as he waited for the results of the exam.

“I showed up in court every day, watched Judge Stern run her docket and became interested in criminal law,” Coyle explains. “As soon as I passed the bar in October 2014, I started taking appointed cases in criminal and sessions courts.”

Doing defense work put Coyle in proximity to local prosecutors, who eventually expressed interest in him joining the DA’s office.

Coyle says he’s looking forward to tackling the challenges that lay ahead at Patrick Beard but will miss being in the trenches with the prosecutors at the DA’s office. Their presence there gives him peace of mind, though, especially now that he and his wife are raising a pair of daughters.

“They are excellent attorneys and great friends. I’m glad they are there to protect this community.”