Justin Stratton, on trial on a first-degree murder charge in a 2011 shooting, testified in his own defense — adamantly — that he may be a thief and drug dealer, but he is no killer and did not shoot the victim.
Stratton, 30, aka Puff, is accused of gunning down Gary Allen Couch point-blank July 30, 2011, on Quarry Road. Prosecutors said he was angry over an argument with another man and took it out on the unsuspecting Couch.
The very first thing Stratton did when he took the stand was offer an apology.
“I want to say something. I’m sorry for these people’s loss. I know what these people portrayed me to be but I’m not a killer,” he said. “Since I was 9 years old, I’ve stole, robbed, but never hurt nobody.”
Jurors began deliberating the case around 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Around 6 p.m., Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp called the panel into the courtroom to see if jurors wanted to keep going. The panel opted to go home and resume deliberations this morning.
The night of the shooting began with Stratton and three others — Anthony Phillips, Ashley Harold and Ginger Holtsclaw — partying together and deciding to go to Numan’s bar. Stratton left quickly after running into a man there he didn’t like.
The girls met Couch and played pool with him until the bar closed. Couch asked them for a ride home and Harold agreed. Phillips testified he was on the patio area of the bar when Stratton pulled up in a white Ford Expedition.
During the time Stratton was gone, prosecutors said, he stole two vehicles from Reliable Imports. One was a black Mercedes that blew a tire, and then he’s suspected of walking back to the car lot and taking the Expedition.
Stratton testified he and Phillips were together and each drove a vehicle away from the lot. Sometime later, Stratton said, the Mercedes broke down and he pulled off Market Street closer to downtown. He threw up, passed out for a while, then woke up and called Phillips, who came to pick him up in the SUV.
The men drove around, still drinking, and ended up near the Sunoco on South Roan Street at the same time as Harold, Holtsclaw and Couch.
Stratton parked at the adjacent car wash — laying in wait, according to Assistant District Attorneys General Dennis Brooks and Erin McArdle’s theory — until the girls and Couch pulled out.
According to testimony by Phillips, Harold and Holtsclaw, the girls drove to Quarry Road with Stratton following closely. Holtsclaw stopped the car, she said, and Stratton walked to her car as Couch got out. That’s when Stratton shot Couch eight times, the three said. A forensic pathologist testified it appeared Couch’s head was partially run over.
Stratton testified he was never on Quarry Road that night, but admitted being in the area of the Sunoco because Phillips wanted a drink. At the same time, the girls and Couch were there getting gas. When Phillips returned to the vehicle, Stratton said he drove to his mother’s house and Phillips left in the SUV. He testified that about 45 minutes later, Phillips returned in the SUV and the girls showed up in Harold’s vehicle.
On cross examination, the heated exchange between Brooks and Stratton happened. Brooks asked Stratton about the demeanor of the girls and Phillips, and Stratton said they acted normal and that the four ended up going to the Motel 6, where they partied and had a good time.
Stratton, obviously highly emotional, said he is not a killer and his friends turned on him trying to pin a murder on him.
“Give me a deal, I’ll tell you anything,” Stratton said, referring to Phillips’ and Holtsclaw’s testimony that they will plead to lesser charges. Both are currently charged with the murder, but it will be dismissed, they said. Harold is also charged with murder, but Harold said she will go to trial because she didn’t do anything.
All throughout Stratton’s testimony — direct and on cross examination — he was adamant he is no killer.
“I, Justin Stratton, aka Puff, didn’t kill nobody. I didn’t kill nobody,” he said over and over.
“I didn’t ruin nobody’s life. I didn’t kill nobody, I didn’t rob nobody that night. That’s not me,” he said. But Stratton did say he carried a BB handgun around to scare people so nobody messed with him. That’s the weapon he had that night while at Numan’s, Stratton said.
Prior to the defense’s case, Cupp dismissed the felony murder and possession of a firearm charges because the state had not provided sufficient evidence to prove those.
Stratton remains jailed on $181,000 bond. If convicted of the murder charge, he faces life in prison.
State prosecutors rested their case mid-morning Thursday against Justin Stratton and defense attorney Larry Dillow asked Judge Robert Cupp for an acquittal on all charges.
Cupp didn't quite do that, but he did toss out the felony murder and firearm charges. Only the premeditated first-degree murder charge will go to the jury. Cupp said the state had not presented enough evidence that a robbery had occurred during the shooting death of Gary Couch on July 30, 2011.
Cupp also ruled that the statute concerning the firearm possession only talks about possession during an attempted murder, not murder itself.
The defense will now begin its case and Stratton will take the stand, Dillow said.
Seven more people took the witness stand Wednesday in a first-degree murder trial in Criminal Court in Jonesborough and two of them pointed to the man at the defense table as the trigger man.
Justin Allen Stratton, aka Puff, 33, of Johnson City, is charged with first-degree murder, felony murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He pleaded guilty at the start of the trial to burglary and two counts of theft over $1,000.
The murder relates to the shooting death July 30, 2011, of Gary Allen Couch, aka Goob, of Greene County. The burglary and theft occurred just prior to the shooting and involved two stolen vehicles — one that police investigators said was used to run over Couch as he lay dying on Quarry Road with eight bullets in him.
A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation specialist testified that blood drops police collected from that vehicle — a Ford Expedition — matched the DNA of Couch. Police Investigator Thomas Dillard testified earlier in the day that he collected blood drops from two wheel wells and on a piece of plastic on the undercarriage of the SUV.
Jurors also heard testimony from Anthony Phillips and Ginger Holtsclaw who were at the shooting scene that early morning. A fourth person there, Ashley Harold, testified on Tuesday. All three pointed to Stratton as the man who pulled the trigger on Couch and each said they had no idea it was going to happen.
Holtsclaw came the closest to admitting knowing anything about a possible violent encounter when she testified she thought Stratton might be going to rob Couch. She was driving Harold’s vehicle after the two left Numan’s just after 3 a.m. with Couch. They had only met him that night but Harold agreed to give him a ride home.
After she found out he lived in Rheatown, they were talking about going somewhere in town to chill for a while. On the way down South Roan Street, they stopped at the Sunoco for gas and cigarettes. Stratton was also nearby, parked at the next door car wash. Video from the business shows Harold’s white Impala pull away from the gas pump and the SUV follow a few seconds later.
They ended up on Quarry Road where Holtsclaw stopped the car.
“(Stratton) was directly on my tail, flashing headlights, blowing horn. I turned onto Quarry Road, he was on my tail. I can’t explain why I stopped,” she said, becoming emotional.
“I stopped the car, the victim got out of the car. I saw Stratton shoot him several times.”
She, like Harold on Tuesday, broke down when Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks showed her a photo of Couch lying dead on the road.
On cross examination by defense attorney Larry Dillow, he focused a lot on Holtsclaw’s truthfulness, getting her to admit she lied under oath at Stratton’s preliminary hearing. At that time, Holtsclaw said she did not see Couch get shot, and that she drove off as soon as he got out of the car.
She also admitted to having previously been a liar and thief, but that she’s changed her ways.
“Let me say this,” she started when Dillow asked if she could be believed today. “This situation that has happened and the things I went through has changed my life. In the past I have told a lot of lies. This has changed my life. Now, I’m telling you, yes, I’m an honest person.”
The jury also watched a video of the first interrogation police did with Stratton as well as listened to an audio of a second interview. In both, Stratton adamantly denied having anything to do with killing Couch.
Repeatedly, particularly in the second interview that occurred Aug. 1, 2011, at the jail, Stratton said, “I didn’t kill nobody.”
The trial will continue today and Stratton could take the stand in his own defense. He’s being held on a $181,000 bond. If convicted of murder, he faces life in prison.