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UPDATE: Testimony turns emotional in murder trial

March 4th, 2014 1:59 pm by Becky Campbell

UPDATE: Testimony turns emotional in murder trial

Justin Stratton talks with his attorney, Larry Dillow, prior to the trial beginning Tuesday morning. (Becky Campbell/Johnson City Press)

Jurors in a first-degree murder trial saw some gruesome photographs Tuesday morning as law enforcement officers testified about the 2011 shooting death of a Greene County man and later heard tearful testimony from a woman at the scene.

Justin A. Stratton, aka Puff, 33, of Johnson City, faces charges of first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder, possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony, burglary and two counts of theft over $1,000.

Stratton stood up Tuesday morning as the indictment was read and pleaded guilty to the burglary and theft charges. He pleaded not guilty to the murder and possession of a weapon charges.

He’s charged in the July 30, 2011, shooting death of Gary Couch Jr., aka Goob, 25, of Rheatown. It happened on Quarry Road in Johnson City after, according to police, Couch was driven there by two women and shot by Stratton.

One of those women, Ashley Harold, was the last person on the witness stand Tuesday and her testimony was smattered with emotion and sometimes confusion. But one thing she seemed sure of was the moment Couch was first shot.

She said Ginger Holtsclaw was driving the car and turned down Quarry Road. A large vehicle with bright lights pulled up behind them fast and Holtsclaw stopped, she said. Then she saw Stratton walking toward her car and heard him tell Couch to get out.

“As he got out I’m pretty sure I saw the fire come out of the gun. I heard it and closed my eyes and covered my ears and turned around and yelled for Ginger to go,” Harold testified. “I was panicking. I didn’t know what to do.”

Throughout much of her testimony, Harold was emotional and at one point broke down when she was asked to identify a photograph of Couch lying dead on the road.

The evening had apparently started off innocently enough, with Harold and Holtsclaw driving to Numan’s Bar and Stratton and Anthony Phillips going in a separate vehicle. While there, the girls met Couch, who was playing pool and showing off a large wad of money. After the bar closed, Couch asked Harold for a ride and she agreed — but testified that she didn’t know at the time he lived in Rheatown.

When he told the girls where he lived, they decided to go to Holtsclaw’s house to sober up some. They turned down Quarry Road and the night turned sour.

After the shooting, the four ended up back at Stratton’s mother’s home for a while before heading to Motel 6 where they stayed a few days. After that, the girls were picked up by police and questioned about Couch’s death. Harold said she lied about the events of that deadly night because Stratton had threatened them.

“He told me to chill out and straighten up and quit crying. He said something (like) ‘It wasn’t my first or second, don’t be my third, fourth or fifth,’” telling us we needed to keep our mouth shut about it cause he knew where we lived, knew where our kids went to school.”

Prior to Harold’s testimony, jurors heard from Dr. Dawn LaJoie that Couch suffered eight gunshot wounds — one that shredded his aorta and caused him to bleed out into his chest cavity — and was likely run over. His upper and lower jaws were both broken, both jaws were dislocated and he had a greasy foreign material on his face.

Earlier in the day, Johnson City Police Investigator Bobby Odom testified about his role of identifying and collecting evidence, which included taking photographs of the scene.

Several of those photos showed Couch up close and portrayed the wounds he suffered the night he died. Those injuries included several gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen area, which he said were close contact shots, and severe injuries to Couch’s face from being run over.

Prior testimony beginning, jurors heard opening statements from Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks and defense attorney Larry Dillow. Brooks told the jury that Stratton shot Couch then ran over him as he drove away.

Dillow has a different theory to the case, which includes Stratton not even being at the scene where Couch died. Instead, Dillow said, it was Anthony Phillips who shot Couch.

Phillips, 30, is one of three other people charged with Couch’s murder. Also charged are Holtsclaw, 29 and Harold, 30. All three are cooperating with prosecutors and are expected to testify this week.

If convicted, Stratton faces life in prison.

The burglary and two counts of theft over $1,000 related to allegations Stratton broke into Reliable Motors and took keys to two vehicles he then stole. One of those vehicles, an SUV, was allegedly the vehicle used to run over Couch after he was shot.

Stratton is in custody on $181,000 bond. The trial will continue today.

REPORTED EARLIER:

Jurors in a first-degree murder trial saw some gruesome photographs Tuesday morning as law enforcement officers testified about the 2011 shooting death of a Greene County man.

Justin A. Stratton, aka Puff, 33, of Johnson City faces first-degree premeditated murder, felony murder, possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony, burglary and two counts of theft over $1,000.

Stratton stood up Tuesday morning as the indictment was read and pleaded guilty to the burglary and theft charges. He pleaded not guilty to the murder and possession of a weapon charges.

He's charged in the July 30, 2011 shooting death of Gary Couch Jr., aka Goob, 25, of Reatown. It happened on Quarry Road in Johnson City after, according to police, Couch was driven there by two women and shot by Stratton.

Attorneys presented opening statements before prosecutors put its first witnesses on the stand. First up was Johnson City Police Officer Robert McCurry, who said he was the first officer on the scene and found a white male lying in the road with apparent gunshot wounds. McCurry checked for signs of life on the man — later identified as Couch — but found none.

The state's second witness called is Investigator Bobby Odom, who was scheduled to return to the stand after lunch for cross examination by defense attorney Larry Dillow. 

Prior to the lunch recess, Odom testified about his role of identifying and collecting evidence which included taking photographs of the scene.

Several of those photos showed Couch up close and portrayed the wounds he received the night he died. Those injuries included several gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen area, which he said were close contact shots, and severe injuries to Couch's face from being run over.

During opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks told the jury that Stratton shot Couch then ran over him as he drove away.

Dillow has a different theory to the case, which includes Stratton not even being at the scene where Couch died. Instead, Dillow said, it was Anthony Phillips who shot Couch.

Phillips, 30, is one of three other people charged with Couch's murder. Also charged are Ginger Holtsclaw, 29 and Ashley Harold, 30. All three are cooperating with prosecutors and are expected to testify this week.

If convicted, Stratton faces life in prison.

The burglary and two counts of theft over $1,000 related to allegations that Stratton broke into Reliable Motors and took keys to two vehicles he then stole. One of those vehicles, an SUV, was allegedly the vehicle used to run over Couch after he was shot.

Stratton is in custody on a $181,000 bond. The trial is continuing Tuesday afternoon.

Other stories related to the 2011 murder, subsequent arrests and ongoing trial:

Jury selected in first-degree murder trial

Three testify in preliminary hearing

Fourth charged with murder in Quarry Road killing

Attorney search on for murder suspect

Man accused in Quarry Road Murder arraigned

Attorney withdraws from murder case, conflict cited

Two women who drove victim to shooting death charged


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