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FULL STORY: Stratton found guilty of murder

March 7th, 2014 1:50 pm by Becky Campbell

FULL STORY: Stratton found guilty of murder

Justin 'Puff" Stratton on the stand in his own defense during the murder trial Thursday.

There were no outbursts of emotion Friday afternoon when a jury foreman announced Justin Allen Stratton, aka Puff, was guilty of first-degree murder, but he shook his head in disbelief and looked away.

Stratton, 33, had been on trial all week for the July 30, 2011, shooting death of 25-year-old Gary Allen Couch, aka Goob, of Greene County, along a dark back road in Johnson City in the early morning hours.

Couch was gunned down and run over, according to investigators and the trial’s prosecutors, Assistant District Attorneys General Dennis Brooks and Erin McArdle.

Jurors saw vivid, gruesome photos of Couch lying on Quarry Road, where the shooting happened, that showed his face disfigured and several teeth missing and lying on the road beside him.

Stratton showed little reaction to the verdict, when the jury was asked one by one if guilty was the verdict they chose or when Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp sentenced him to life in prison.

Stratton is currently serving the rest of a 20-year sentence for other crimes, and the life sentence will start when that term expires.

Stratton had maintained his innocence of the murder, although he readily admitted to being a thief, robber and drug dealer. And his attorney, Larry Dillow, fought prosecutors all the way through the trial.

But the defense apparently could not overcome evidence the jury obviously felt proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt, despite no forensic evidence specifically tying Stratton to the murder.

It may have come down to the three primary witnesses who placed Stratton at the scene as the one holding the gun and firing eight shots into an unarmed Couch.

Johnson City police never recovered the weapon used to kill Couch, although a small piece of the rear sight of a gun was found lying on the road beside him. It was never fully proven that it came from the weapon that killed him.

The primary witnesses against Stratton — Anthony Phillips, Ginger Holtsclaw and Ashley Harold — all testified they initially lied to police when first questioned because they were scared of Stratton and he’d threatened them. At subsequent interviews by police, and on the stand this week, they all testified Stratton pulled the trigger and boasted it was his first killing.

The four went to Numan’s bar together the night of the shooting, but dispersed when they got there. The women ended up meeting Couch for the first time and played pool with him the rest of the evening. Phillips said he hung out and drank and Stratton would testify that he saw a man he didn’t like as soon as he arrived so he left.

Prosecutors said Stratton ended up stealing two vehicles — a Mercedes that broke down and then a white Ford Expedition — from Reliable Imports before driving to pick up Phillips.

Phillips testified he and Stratton rode around drinking and Stratton was on the phone when he went to the car wash beside Sunoco on South Roan Street around 3 a.m.

Holtsclaw, Harold and Couch — whom the girls were giving a ride to — showed up for gas at the Sunoco. From there, Holtsclaw ended up on Quarry Road after the trio decided to forego a trip to Couch’s home in Greene County to sober up in town or at Harold’s home.

But they never made it that far. The white Expedition, which the three testified was being driven by Stratton, was right behind Holtsclaw.

She testified she wasn’t sure why she stopped her car, but she did and Couch got out. She said Stratton had walked up to her car and began shooting.

The girls left, and in a phone call with Phillips were told to go to Stratton’s mother’s home. The four met back up there and ultimately ended up spending the next day and a half at Motel 6. All the while, the three said, Stratton threatened them and their families if they said anything about the shooting.

Dillow tried to create doubt that Couch was run over by presenting the theory Couch was pistol-whipped. But the forensic pathologist, Dr. Dawn LaJoie, testified it was unlikely a person could have enough force in a pistol whipping to cause the damage Couch had to his face.

The most dramatic testimony came Thursday from Stratton himself when he began yelling at Brooks on cross examination.

Stratton was adamant he is no killer and yelled that over and over until Cupp had the jury taken out and threatened to gag the defendant.

Stratton apologized and his testimony continued without further incident.

After the verdict was read Friday, Cupp commended him on his behavior as he heard the jury polled.

“I know that was hard to sit there and listen to,” Cupp said.

The judge set an April 24 motion for new trial hearing in the case. In the meantime, Stratton requested he be transported to a state prison.

Reported earlier:

A jury has found Justin "Puff" Stratton, 33, guilty of first-degree murder.

Jurors deliberated for roughly six hours before returning their verdict shortly after 1 p.m. Friday at the George P. Jaynes Justice Center in Jonesborough.

The trial lasted five days and included testimony from several other individuals charged in the 2011 murder of Gary Allen Couch.

Perhaps the most emotional day came on Thursday when Stratton took the stand in his own defense. Stratton vehemently denied murdering Couch, yelling "I'm not a killer," while on the stand.

Jurors decided otherwise, finding him guilty of first-degree murder, which comes with an automatic life sentence. Stratton had little to no reaction when the verdict was read, turning his head away and slightly shaking it.

Keep checking JohnsonCityPress.com for a complete story from today's trial proceedings.

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Earlier report:

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, 33, 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.

See more coverage of the case at JohnsonCityPress.com.

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