Convicted killer testifies in bid for new trial

Brad Hicks • Dec 18, 2013 at 9:58 PM

ERWIN — Convicted killer Conley Fair is seeking relief on the murder and attempted murder convictions that netted him life in prison, and he appeared in Unicoi County Criminal Court on Wednesday for an evidentiary hearing on his most recent effort to have his case reviewed.

Fair is serving a sentence of life in prison plus 35 years for the 1995 murder of Bruce Stukey and the attempted murder of James C. Brown.

According to the affidavit of complaint filed at the time of the shootings, on the morning of Aug. 15, 1995, officers with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department responded to Jerry’s Market in Unicoi on the report of a possible shooting. There, officers found Brown, who had suffered a gunshot would to a hand, according to the report. Brown told officers that Fair used a handgun to shoot Stukey in the back while the three men were on Buffalo Mountain the prior evening. Brown stated that after Stukey was shot, Fair began firing at him as he attempted to flee.

“Brown fled through the mountains toward Unicoi walking to Jerry’s Market for assistance,” the affidavit states.

Stukey’s body was found by officials later that day in a remote area below Fire Tower Road. Stukey had suffered a gunshot wound to the back, according to court documents.

Following a two-day search, Fair was arrested by Johnson City police officers on Aug. 17, 1995. In March 1997, a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Fair on charges of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder.

Fair’s first trial began in September 1997. It ended in a mistrial, as Fair’s sister-in-law discussed Fair’s criminal history and the fact he had previously spent time in a penitentiary before the jury could deliberate.

The following year, Fair was retried on the charges. This time, the jury found him guilty of the first-degree murder of Stukey, for which he was sentenced to life in prison, and the attempted first-degree murder of Brown, for which he was sentenced to serve 35 years to run consecutively to the life sentence.

Fair attempted to appeal his conviction but, in November 1999, the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville reaffirmed the conviction.

In June 2002, Fair filed a post-conviction petition seeking relief from his conviction alleging his attorney, William Lawson, who defended Fair in both trials, had failed to provide him with proper representation. However, this request was denied in February 2003 in Unicoi County Criminal Court. The order denying the request stated Fair filed the petition nine months after the two-year statute of limitations allowing him to legally do so had expired.

The Court of Criminal Appeals subsequently reviewed the matter and concluded Fair would be allowed to file the post-conviction petition and that an evidentiary hearing in the matter was to be held.

In July, Fair filed an amended petition requesting the court “vacate and set aside” his conviction.

Fair took stand at Wednesday’s evidentiary hearing and, in response to a question from one of his attorneys, gave his take on why it has taken nearly two decades from when he was arrested to arrive at this point.

“Mr. Lawson has screwed my case up so bad that I’ve been fighting for 17 years to get it to where it’s at now,” he said.

Fair, who contends the shootings were committed in self-defense after being struck by Brown while on Buffalo Mountain, testified Wednesday that he took umbrage with Lawson’s handling of his second trial. He said Lawson failed to contact a pair of witnesses — a Kingsport woman and an inmate who served with Stukey — both of whom would have provided testimony at the trial that Stukey may have wanted to harm him.

Lawson also waived Fair’s right to testify at trial, Fair testified. Fair, who said he wished to testify at his trial, said Lawson would not allow him to take the stand due to his past criminal history.

“I never did say I didn’t want to testify,” Fair said.

Fair also alleged Lawson improperly attempted to remove himself as Fair’s counsel, failed to file court documents, and failed to question witnesses to his liking and direction.

“The only thing he’d do is he’d stand up and object every now and then,” Fair said.

Fair said Lawson did attempt to introduce contradictory statements from Brown, but this was denied as Brown died prior to the start of his first trial. Fair said these statements had to do with the number of shots Brown stated had been fired at the scene. Fair said there were also discrepancies in the pathologist’s report and what actually transpired.

“They said I shot (Stukey) three different places that I didn’t shoot him,” Fair said. “I know where I shot him. I was the one that did the shooting.”

Lawson also testified at Wednesday’s hearing and said he did attempt to bring in other witnesses who would verify that Brown misidentified the type of gun used in the shootings, but he was denied the opportunity to bring in these witnesses due to Brown’s death.

“That was a big issue in this whole trial,” Lawson said.

Lawson also said he recommended to Fair that he not testify at the trial but did not prevent him from doing so. He said he made this recommendation due to Fair’s criminal history.

“My advice to him was not to testify,” Lawson said.

Judge Stacy Street, who presided over Wednesday’s hearing, said he would review Wednesday’s testimony, as well as court documents, and issue a ruling on Fair’s post-conviction petition within 60 days.

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