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State Supreme Court upholds Bartow murder conviction

Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the 2014 murder conviction of Cartersville residents Steven Mark Eller and his sister, Tammy Murphy, in the shooting death of Murphy’s boyfriend, Danny Lamar Gravley.

On March 16, 2013, Gravley, who lived with Murphy and Eller, caught a ride home from a funeral with his nephew, Jason. The two made plans to go to church the following day and move a china cabinet.

When Gravley failed to keep his appointment the next day, his nephew called Murphy asking if she knew Gravley's whereabouts. She told him that they had argued and she hadn't seen him since 10 p.m. the previous night. 

The next morning, Emerson Police officers found an abandoned pickup truck on Red Top Mountain Road with Gravley’s body lying in the truck bed. He had been shot once in the head with a .38 caliber bullet fired from a handgun. Agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found no blood spatter in the truck bed or cabin leading them to believe that Gravley had been shot in another location.

After extensive investigation, Bartow County Sheriff’s investigators took Eller into custody and Sgt. Jonathan Rogers took Murphy into custody when she returned to the house.

Eller and Murphy were indicted by a Bartow County grand jury for malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, concealing the death of another and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. 

At trial, Eller claimed the shooting was an accident, while 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 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.

On Aug. 28, 2014, the jury found both guilty as charged.

Bartow County Superior Court Judge Suzanne H. Smith sentenced Eller to life plus 15 years while Murphy was given life plus five years.      

Eller and Murphy argued that their trial counsel was ineffective by allowing the alternate jurors to remain with the jury during deliberations; failing to object to the medical examiner’s testimony suggesting that the shooting was not an accident; withdrawing a notice of intent to introduce evidence of Gravley’s violent acts toward third parties; failing to object to inadmissible hearsay; failing to object to improper testimony about Murphy’s pre-arrest silence; and failing to introduce a certified copy of a bond order requiring Gravley to have no contact with Murphy.

The court ruled that:

• Even if the appellants' trial counsel had objected to the presence of the alternate jurors in the jury room during deliberations, the state submitted affidavits from all of the jurors demonstrating harmlessness, so the claim of ineffective assistance fails.

• The medical examiner’s testimony that Gravley’s injuries were inconsistent with an accidental shooting was based on her specialized knowledge and training, thus her testimony was admissible and any objection would have been meritless.

• The counsel’s strategy to not object to hearsay did not fall outside the wide range of reasonable professional performance.

• Failing to object to improper testimony about Murphy’s pre-arrest silence and failing to introduce a certified copy of a bond order requiring Gravley to have no contact with Murphy is “subject to reasonable dispute,” and "we again decline to find deficient performance based on trial counsel’s failure to object under an "unsettled question of law."

• Failing to show a no contact order, “cannot establish how counsel’s performance, even if deficient, prejudiced [their] defense so as to support a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.”