Attorney search on for murder suspect

Becky Campbell • Nov 7, 2012 at 9:50 PM

For the second time since being indicted on a first-degree murder charge, Justin Stratton is without an attorney because of a conflict with a witness.

Stratton, 31, aka Puff, is accused of gunning down Gary Couch in July 2011 on Quarry Road in Johnson City.

First, the public defender’s office withdrew and then the second attorney on the case, Bob Jessee, had to step out of it. The case was on Judge Robert Cupp’s docket Wednesday so the judge could appoint a new attorney, but he indicated he’s having trouble finding someone.

Stratton just wanted to know why his attorneys keep quitting.

“I don’t understand why my first lawyer” quit, he said. “They don’t tell me.”

Cupp said Assistant Public Defender Bill Francisco and Jessee both had conflicts with witnesses. He didn’t explain further, but it could mean the witnesses have been represented by the attorneys in the past or some other reason that might put them at odds with the attorney.

After Stratton’s case got to Criminal Court, Cupp appointed the public defender’s office to represent him. He kept that representation until August when Francisco told Cupp he’d discovered a conflict.

At that point, Cupp appointed Jessee to the case. In his initial talks with Stratton, Jessee discovered a similar conflict he had in the case that caused him to withdraw as well.

Cupp assured Stratton on Wednesday that he’s doing all he can to find the right attorney for him.

“I’ve been striking out on attorneys. I’ve had two that had a conflict. I don’t take this lightly,” he said. “I want to make sure you have a good attorney.”

Cupp will re-address the attorney appointment today, he said.

The shooting allegedly occurred after Stratton instructed two women to take Couch to Quarry Road after they had all been at Numan’s in downtown Johnson City.

The night started with Stratton, his friend Anthony Phillips, and two women, Ginger Holtsclaw and Ashley Harold, going to Numan’s together. Couch was apparently already there and not with the group but talked to the girls at some point.

During the night, Couch asked the girls to drive him home to Greene County. The trio left, stopping for gas at the Sunoco on South Roan Street. Stratton and Phillips ended up at the car wash next door, but Phillips testified at a preliminary hearing last year that he was under the impression Stratton was going to buy some “roxy 30s” from a guy.

Holtsclaw testified at that hearing that she was on the phone with Stratton while she, Harold and Couch were at the Sunoco and was told to go to Quarry Road.

Some of the testimony from Holtsclaw, Harold and Phillips had minor contradictions and they couldn’t remember some details, but all three testified they had been drinking most of the day and the women, at least, were very intoxicated.

When Holtsclaw turned from South Roan Street onto Quarry Road, she said Stratton’s SUV was “right on my back bumper.” When he flashed his headlights, she stopped, she said.

Holtsclaw testified Stratton and Phillips got out of the SUV and approached her car. She said she didn’t hear any gunshots, but pulled away as soon as Couch got out of the car.

Harold’s account was that when the vehicle stopped, she heard Stratton yelling for Couch, sitting behind the driver’s seat, to get out of the car, and when he did she looked back and saw a gun.

“I seen him shoot Gary when he stepped out of my car. I seen the fire come out of the gun and I told Ginger to go,” Harold testified.

Phillips testified that when the vehicles stopped, Stratton walked to the car and Couch got out.

“I thought they was talking and (Couch) threw his hands up and then I heard pow pow,” Phillips said. He also testified he heard Couch ask Stratton why he was shooting him.

After the shooting, the four ended up back at Stratton’s mother’s apartment on Bell Ridge Road. All three testified Stratton threatened them, saying he knew where their children went to school, where they lived and where their families lived.

They spent the next two nights at a local motel before Holtsclaw, Harold and Stratton were picked up for questioning by police. The women were released, but Stratton was held on unrelated charges.

It wasn’t until Phillips was sure Stratton was in jail that he would tell police what he saw, he testified.

Stratton remains jailed on a $181,000 bond.

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