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Eller v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 5, 2018

ELLER et al.
v.
THE STATE.

          GRANT, JUSTICE.

         Appellant Steven Mark Eller was found guilty of malice murder and other crimes, and his sister, Appellant Tammy Murphy, was found guilty of felony murder and other crimes, all in connection with the March 2013 shooting death of Murphy's boyfriend, Danny Lamar Gravley. Appellants now appeal, asserting that the evidence was insufficient to sustain Murphy's felony murder and aggravated assault convictions, that the trial court committed reversible error by allowing the alternate jurors to remain in the jury room during deliberations, and that Appellants' trial counsel each rendered ineffective assistance for several reasons. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.[1]

         I.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the evidence at trial showed that Danny Lamar Gravley lived with his girlfriend, Tammy Murphy, and her brother, Steven Mark Eller, the two Appellants in this case. On March 16, 2013, Gravley's nephew, Jason, gave Gravley a ride home from a funeral that they attended together. Jason made plans with Gravley to go to church and move a china cabinet the following day.

         The next morning, March 17, 2013, officers from the City of Emerson Police Department discovered an abandoned white pickup truck with Gravley's dead body lying in the bed of the truck. He had been shot in the head. An autopsy later determined that Gravley was shot once in the head with a .38 bullet fired from a handgun. There was no blood in the cabin of the truck but the passenger's seat was full of personal items, including a footlocker and clothing, leaving only enough room for the driver in the cab. GBI agents reasoned that Gravley had been shot in another location because there was no blood spatter in the truck bed. The lividity and temperature of the body suggested that the victim had been dead for several hours.

         Meanwhile, Gravley's nephews were trying to determine his whereabouts. Jason called Murphy to ask where Gravley was, and she told Jason that she and Gravley had gotten into an argument the previous night and that she had not seen him since he left around 10:00 p.m. Murphy told the same story to another of Gravley's nephews, Charlie. Both nephews thought Murphy sounded unusually "matter-of-fact, " "detail[ed], " "plain, " and "deliberate" in how she described the events of the previous night.

         When GBI agents arrived at Appellants' residence, the fire department was there responding to a backyard fire that was out of control. Murphy told firefighters that she was burning "stuff" in the back yard. Firefighters extinguished the flames and noticed that trash and household items were being burned. GBI agents knocked on the door and Eller answered. He had a serious foot injury. Agents informed Eller and Murphy that Gravley was dead. According to an agent, Murphy "cried just a little, not as much as you would normally expect of someone who had lost a loved one." Both Appellants denied harming the victim. According to Murphy, there had been a domestic altercation the night before, during which Gravley bit her. She said that Gravley left in his truck because he "wanted to go off and just blow off some steam, " and that she had not seen him since. Murphy had a bite mark on her wrist and bruising near her elbow. The bite mark was consistent either with Murphy having bitten herself or with Murphy's arm being around the neck of the person who bit her.

         The following day, Sergeant Jonathan Rogers, along with other police officers from the Bartow County Sherriff's Office, went back to the residence shared by Appellants and Gravley. When law enforcement arrived, Murphy's daughter and Eller were there, but Murphy was not. Eller left the house with investigators, and Sergeant Rogers waited for Murphy to return. While in the back yard, Sergeant Rogers observed what appeared to be blood on the siding of the house, on a step going up to the back deck, and on two fence posts. Sergeant Rogers saw Murphy drive toward the house and then turn around and drive away. Suspecting that she was attempting to avoid law enforcement, he followed her without his blue lights activated. Murphy apparently noticed that Sergeant Rogers was following her and, after driving for about half a mile, she pulled over and exited her vehicle. Murphy appeared "nervous and edgy, " and agreed to go back to her house to speak with Sergeant Rogers. While Sergeant Rogers was speaking with Murphy, officers began to search the premises pursuant to a search warrant.

         Sergeant Rogers advised Murphy of her rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (86 S.Ct. 1602) (1966), but explicitly informed her that she was not under arrest and that she was free to go. A search of Murphy's car revealed small red stains that appeared to be blood on the passenger's "pull down handle." Sergeant Rogers asked Murphy to look at those markings to see if there could be some kind of explanation for why they would be there but she "could not offer any kind of explanation, did not say anything." Appellants' shoes were also seized-no blood was found on Murphy's shoes, but Eller's shoes revealed blood from an unknown source.

         The next day, Appellants voluntarily appeared at the sheriff's office, waived their Miranda rights, and gave separate interviews to law enforcement. Murphy said that she and Gravley had been arguing all night on March 17, noting that "it happens all the time." According to Murphy, she and Gravley were fighting in her bedroom, and she left and went to Eller's bedroom for help, but Eller was not there. Gravley, who had a gun at the time, followed Murphy into Eller's room and was calling Murphy names and threatening her. She said he also bit her. Gravley then grabbed her and threatened to have someone come kill her. In Murphy's telling, Eller then came up behind Gravley and the two men struggled for the gun. The struggle over the gun caused Eller, Gravley, and Murphy to fall onto Eller's bed, and when they fell, the gun went off. Murphy admitted that she was drunk and that, after the shot, "many drunken decisions were made." She also said that she had gotten Gravley's body out through the front door. The next thing Murphy recalled was that she drove Gravley's truck down Interstate 75. She stated that "Gravley's gun was thrown out along I-75 somewhere."

         Eller's version of events was similar, but not identical. He said that he had sustained a foot injury during the incident that was "killing him, " but was too nervous to go to the hospital. Eller also indicated that he had a "drunken memory" of the incident, and stated that his brother and sister-in-law had come to the house to drink and that "everyone was buzzing." At some point, his brother and sister-in-law left, and he went to the back yard and set a stump on fire. When he went to his bedroom, he saw Gravley pointing a gun at Murphy, so he ran up behind Gravley and knocked his arm in the air to deflect the aim from Murphy. Eller said that he knocked the gun out of Gravley's hand and grabbed it in an "upside-down fashion." Gravley threw his weight back onto Eller's ankle, which caused Eller and Gravley to fall to the bed. When they fell, the gun went off, killing Gravley. After the shooting, Eller began "freaking out" and made some "stupid decisions." He stated that he did not call emergency services because he and his sister thought they would not believe a drunk person. He cleaned the house and burned everything by throwing it onto the stump fire. Eller told police that he wrapped Gravley's body in a shower curtain and "drug his fat a** through the living room and out the front door, down the damn porch steps, " and loaded him into the back of Gravley's truck. He admitted to leaving Gravley's body in the back of the truck and throwing the gun out the window on Interstate 75. Eller also commented that he was bothered that Murphy had "moved that a**hole in, " but that they depended on Gravley as a source of income for their residence because Eller could not work due to an injury.

         Appellants were arrested, and officers executed a second search warrant at their residence. Using a black light device, officers found stains on the bed's box spring, the carpet near the door, the bedroom wall, a vent cover, and on only the inside of the bedroom door, lined up with the wall and trim with the door closed.

         At trial, Eller claimed accident and justification. Murphy argued that she never touched a gun and that the evidence showed only that she was a victim of an aggravated assault committed by Gravley. GBI Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lora Darrisaw was tendered by the State as an expert witness and testified that Gravley's injuries were inconsistent with an accidental shooting because of "the pattern of the wound on the skin, the presence of soot on the bone at the entrance wound site, the location of the wound in the back of the head, [and] the direction of the wound with no upward or downward deviation, " but instead "nearly perpendicular to his body." She also noted that Gravley had abrasions on his face that were consistent with hitting a hard surface, which could have been the ground when he fell following the gunshot.

         Gravley's nephew testified that he had never seen Gravley carry a weapon, and opined that Gravley "wasn't a weapons person." The defense, on the other hand, proved that Gravley had purchased a .38 handgun. Several defense witnesses, including Murphy's sister-in-law and a friend of Murphy's who was incarcerated at the time of trial, testified about previous incidences of domestic violence by Gravley against Murphy. The State called two rebuttal witnesses, including Gravley's ex-wife, who testified as to Gravley's nonviolent nature.

         Although Eller has not challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions, we have independently examined the record according to our usual practice in murder cases and conclude that the evidence admitted at trial was sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Eller was guilty of the crimes of ...


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