A Key Witness In The Holly Bobo Murder Trial Is Recanting His Testimony, Court Documents Show

FILE - Dana Bobo, let, father of Holly Bobo, testifies in the trial of Zachary Adams as a photo of Holly Bobo is displayed Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in Savannah, Tenn. Holly Bobo, a 20-year-old nursing student, disappeared from her home in Parsons, Tenn. on April 13, 2011, and Adams is charged with her kidnapping, rape and murder.  Court documents show that Jason Autry, the star trial witness in the killing of Holly Bobo, a 20-year-old nursing student who disappeared from her rural Tennessee home in 2011, is recanting his testimony.  (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, Pool, File)
FILE - Dana Bobo, let, father of Holly Bobo, testifies in the trial of Zachary Adams as a photo of Holly Bobo is displayed Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, in Savannah, Tenn. Holly Bobo, a 20-year-old nursing student, disappeared from her home in Parsons, Tenn. on April 13, 2011, and Adams is charged with her kidnapping, rape and murder. Court documents show that Jason Autry, the star trial witness in the killing of Holly Bobo, a 20-year-old nursing student who disappeared from her rural Tennessee home in 2011, is recanting his testimony. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, Pool, File)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — As the star witness in the Holly Bobo murder trial, Jason Autry spoke in a calm, deliberative manner as an attentive jury listened to him recreate the day the kidnapped Tennessee nursing student was wrapped in a blanket, placed in the back of a pickup truck, driven to a river and shot to death by his friend.

Autry wore a white jail uniform and made a point of putting on eyeglasses as he looked at rural maps during his hourslong testimony in the killing of Bobo, a 20-year-old woman who disappeared from her home in 2011. Bobo's remains were found more than three years after a massive search of woods, fields and farms.

A convicted felon facing serious charges in the case, Autry gave graphic testimony against his friend Zachary Adams, including details about drug use and Bobo’s kidnapping, rape and slaying. Autry told the jury he served as a lookout as Adams shot Bobo under a bridge near a river.

“It sounded like, boom, boom, boom, underneath that bridge. It was just one shot but it echoed,” Autry testified. “Birds went everywhere, all up under that bridge. Then just dead silence for just a second.”

Praised by the trial judge who called his testimony credible, Autry’s story helped seal the fate of Adams, who was convicted at the 2017 trial and sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years. More than six years later, court records show Autry’s taking it all back and recanting his testimony, saying he made up the story to avoid spending life in prison.

Autry's reversal was revealed in two petitions seeking post-conviction relief filed by Adams’ lawyer in Hardin County, where the trial took place. Adams, 39, wants his conviction thrown out based on Autry's latest statements about the case that grabbed national headlines and frightened residents of Bobo's quiet west Tennessee hometown of Parsons, about 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of Memphis.

“The record will ultimately acquit Mr. Adams based on Mr. Jason Autry's complete and total recantation,” one of the petitions says.

After Bobo disappeared, authorities and volunteers launched an intense search. Missing person flyers bearing her face were distributed in many states and national news outlets breathlessly focused on the case. Bobo's remains were eventually found in some woods by ginseng hunters in September 2014.

Investigators found no DNA evidence connecting Adams to Bobo. Instead, they relied on testimony from friends and jail inmates, who said Adams spoke of harming Bobo after she died. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said that the investigation was the most exhaustive and expensive in the agency’s history. Witnesses painted a disturbing picture of drug life in rural West Tennessee and the trial featured high emotions: Bobo's mother collapsed on the witness stand.

Like Adams, Autry was charged with kidnapping, rape and murder, but he received leniency for his testimony. Autry eventually pleaded guilty to solicitation to commit murder and facilitation of especially aggravated kidnapping, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released in 2020, but he was arrested about two months later and charged with federal weapons violations after a deputy saw him in a rural field with a rifle. Autry, 49, is scheduled to be sentenced in April following his guilty plea in the weapons case.

Tennessee’s Court of Criminal Appeals denied the initial appeal of Adams’ conviction in 2022. The most recent petitions discussing Autry's decision to recant his testimony were filed in Hardin County Circuit Court on Jan. 22, based on what Adams’ lawyer refers to as new evidence. The filings seek a hearing and for Adams’ conviction to be set aside.

Autry met with Dr. Katie Spirko, a forensic and clinical neuropsychologist, and told her that he was recanting his trial testimony. Autry said he made the story up after his lawyer told him he was “95% certain of a conviction" of charges against Autry in the Bobo case, according to one of the petitions.

The petition says Autry concocted the entire story in his jail cell while reviewing discovery evidence. He admitted his testimony was false and that he used extensive cell phone data to create a story, the petition says.

“He said he just recreated his day and ‘added Holly to it,’” the filing says. “He acknowledged it was all to get him out of jail at the express guidance of his attorney.”

The petition notes that Autry’s testimony was critical in securing a conviction against Adams. Judge C. Creed McGinley, who presided over the trial, said at Autry’s sentencing that his testimony “was some of the most credible, persuasive testimony I’ve ever heard given in a courtroom.”

Generally, it’s unusual for a cooperating witness to recant testimony years after a trial. It is unclear whether Autry’s decision will affect Adams’ criminal conviction, but it's the first significant development in the case since Adams lost his appeal.

It's also unclear why Autry would recant his testimony now. A computer drive with Autry’s statements was filed with the court, but it's not publicly available. A hearing to determine if the exhibit will be sealed is scheduled for April 17.

Douglas Bates IV, Adams' post-conviction lawyer, declined comment through an assistant at his law firm.

Adams' post-conviction relief petitions also argue that Adams should have been allowed to testify by his lawyers and they failed to rebut Autry's story, the petitions say.