A Brother’s Death

My brother was murdered. After 15+ years, here’s what I remember and what is yet to come.

Mark Anthony — one month before his death

They say that time heals all wounds. Some of us know that simply isn’t true. However — at least for me — over time, many details fade from the forefront of my memories. Here’s what I remember about the events that happened in the aftermath of Mark’s death.*

It was February 16, 2004; President’s Day. I spent the day painting the foyer and staircase of our Burke, Virginia, home.

Just after 5:00 p.m., I was applying the finishing touches when I heard the phone ring. It was for me — who is it? Ricky Pollard?

Hey Chris, it’s Brother Ricky from Pine Grove Baptist Church. I’m here with your Mom and Dad. Mark has been killed. We know he was shot, but the details are sketchy.

Twelve hours later: I’m at Reagan National Airport, boarding a 5:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta.

Then, I’m sitting in a rental car grabbing a coffee and something to eat at a McDonalds on Camp Creek Parkway in Atlanta. I remember looking at my watch. It was 8:07 a.m.

After crossing the Alabama-Georgia state line on the Buttermilk Road, I glanced at my watch just as it switched to Central Standard Time. It was 8:41 a.m.

As I topped the hill in front of Johnny Proctor’s home, the short distance to my childhood home seemed to stretch to eternity. Mom and Dad’s home came into view as I rounded the sharp curve in front of my Papaw’s old home-place.

There were well over a dozen cars in the yard. It seemed I had been traveling for days.

I parked in the side driveway — closed my eyes and took a deep breath — and stepped out of the car. The next few minutes are a blur. I remember hugging my cousin, Lee.

Dad pulled Lee and I, along with another cousin, Jeff, into a back room. He still knew nothing. No one had said where they took Mark’s body. What happened to the shooter? Where is the truck Mark was driving?

I called the Etowah County Sherrif’s Office. (Mark and our parents lived in Cherokee County.) They provided little information. They were waiting on a family member to come in and sign some documents. They could have called! Lee and I headed to Gadsden.

The clerk asked me to sign what he described as a warrant. He told us that Mr. Griffin was being held until a bail determination could be made and he told us where the truck was parked. They would be in touch.

It would be a few days before we would receive Mark’s body. Since it was an alleged murder, there would be an autopsy. Those days are a blur.

The funeral home notified us that they were to receive the remains on Thursday, February 19th. We scrambled to formalize funeral arrangements for the 20th.

Mom, Dad, and I arrived at the funeral home for the funeral. I remember Mom and Dad standing in front of the casket. They embraced in a way I had never seen. One can only imagine how a mother and father must feel when they are faced with burying a child. This was the second time they would bury a child. I remember very little about the service.

Mr. Griffith was released from jail on a $50,000 bond.

On February 23, 2004, we learned that Mark’s ex-wife, Tonya, was arrested and charged with giving false information to investigators. She was released on a $1,000 bond.

Time slowed down. Weeks — then months — passed. Nothing seemed to be happening. We were fighting with the Calhoun County Department of Human Resources to obtain visitation and possible custody of Mark’s two sons. It didn’t go well. Mr. Griffith’s family was well established in Calhoun County — we were not.

In March 2005 — while sitting at my desk in the Pentagon — I received a call from the Etowah County District Attorney. Mr. Griffith was indicted for capital murder. His bond would be revoked and he would be incarcerated until the trial.

More waiting.

Finally, the call came. The trial was scheduled for the week of June 12, 2006 — it was 2-years, 3-months, and 26-days after Mark’s death.

I was designated as the Victim’s Representative. As such, I was involved in every aspect of the prosecution. I sat with the prosecuting attorney during the trial. If he went to the bench, I went. If he went to chambers with the judge, so did I. If there were side-bars, I was there.

Jury selection was first. It is not an exact science — like portrayed on Law and Order — as I would learn. Each side was attempting to build a jury favorable to their case. Finally, it was done. Not sure I felt good about the jurors. We had eliminated a high school teacher who’s classes Mark and I had attended. I had other concerns, but my vote really didn’t count. The trial would begin.

The prosecution made our case. I was amazed at the detail of the evidence they were providing. There were objections — many of them. There were trips to the judge’s chambers. Mark’s ex-wife had been charged with giving false information — prosecutors agreed to drop those charges in exchange for her testimony. I still have not gotten over the fact that she walked away, but her testimony was damning.

At that point the judge paused and there was a brief recess. When we returned, ADA Gary Phillips pulled me into a conference room. He asked me if he was missing anything. He didn’t want to show all his cards, just yet. He was thinking about turning it over to the defense. I reluctantly agreed. Judge Malone swung the gavel, and ADA Phillips said, “your honor, the prosecution rest.” It was nothing short of surreal.

The defense attorney was Roy McCord. He was supposed to be the best. He threw his case at the wall to see what would stick. Little did. Many objections later, the defense rested. Court was recessed for lunch.

Again, I was pulled into the conference room with ADA Phillips. He again wanted to know my thoughts. I found it scary, but wasn’t going to walk away from that responsibility. We reviewed the case. He had other issues that could be raised. He went through each. Under Alabama law, the prosecution gets to make their case — then the defense gets equal time. A person is innocent until proven guilty. Because of that, the prosecution then has another opportunity to prove guilt. ADA Phillips thought we had made our case, and taking another trip to the well could backfire. I agreed.

Judge Malone called the court to order. ADA Phillips rested the prosecution a second time. It was now up to the jury. I remember closing my eyes and praying that we had selected the right jury members.

Judge Malone instructed the jury. They left the room and deliberated for about 30 minutes. It had been a long day. The judge sent everyone home. I did not sleep that night.

The next morning, I was tired and scared. The jury deliberated for about an hour before Judge Malone called the court to order. The jury needed the judge to clarify the difference between murder and manslaughter, the lesser offenses of which Mr. Griffith could be convicted.

It only took the jury 10 minutes to return to the courtroom with a guilty verdict for murder. There was an audible sigh of relief from our side of the courtroom. The other side was in shock.

Judge Malone set August 14, 2006, to hear sentencing arguments. I agreed to speak on behalf of Mark and the family.

I asked ADA Phillips for guidance. He explained that it was not my responsibility to make a legal argument at sentencing. It was my job to speak for Mark, to talk about the person he was and to explain the impact of his death on the community, his children, his parents, and his many friends. The range of sentencing was from 20-years to life.

The ADA made sure I understood what a sentence of “life” meant. Under Alabama law, in a non-capital murder case, life means 30-years. A person sentenced to life in prison could be paroled after only 12-years. Had he been convicted of capital murder, his maximum sentence would have been life without parole.

Over the next three weeks, I spent hours sitting at my computer. This was probably the toughest assignment I had ever been given. I wrote in small sessions. When the words wouldn’t come, I had to walk away.

I had to make a sentencing recommendation. How do you make a prison recommendation that is shorter than the death sentence the victim received? This troubled me deeply.

The last two-plus years had been rough on everyone, particularly my parents. I wanted this to be over. I knew nothing would ever make this right in their eyes. I needed to ensure that they would never have to deal with this again. In that thought I found my answer.

I finished my letter. I explained that I understood that Mr. Griffith would likely be paroled at some point, given his young age. To that end, my main concern was for him to receive a sufficient sentence that would — in all probability — ensure that Mr. Griffith would not be eligible for parole for as long as my parents lived. I thought I had the answer.

I forwarded the statement that I planned to read at sentencing to ADA Phillips for his review. The judge would also review it prior to the hearing.

The day of the sentencing hearing, ADA Phillips relayed a question from the judge: How long do you think your parents will live? I had not expected that question — I should have. I didn’t know what to say. ADA Phillips asked how old my parents were? Dad was 76 and Mom was 69. Again, the ADA pressed; how much longer do you think they will live? How could I know that?

ADA Phillips suggested that I think about how long my grandparents had lived. That comparison suggested that we only needed 10 years. I wasn’t happy with that number. I thought they could live much longer than that. ADA Phillips pressed again, the judge needs a number. I told him I wanted 15 years before parole eligibility.

The ADA made his sentencing arguments followed by the defense. I made my statement on behalf of the family. Someone made a statement on behalf of Mr. Griffith, but I do not remember a single word of it. The judge took a short recess. I was sick to my stomach.

When Judge Malone returned to the courtroom, he sentenced Mr. Jody Edwin Griffith to 35-years. I was confused. I asked how he could do that if life in prison really means 30-years? He explained that while life in prison usually means 30-years in Alabama, there is no limit to the number of years that can be prescribed. He would still most likely be eligible for parole, just a little closer to 15 years than 12 years. I can’t say that I understand that to this day. He winked and said, I think the judge listened to your request.

On November 16, 2020, Mark’s oldest child, Chasity, was contacted by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. Jody Edwin Griffith will be considered for parole on December 17, 2020. He has served 15 years, 8 months, and 21 days, as of this writing.

So it begins. The day we knew would eventually come. The last few days have been an emotional roller coster. Due to Covid-19, the parole hearing will not be a public hearing. Protest must be submitted in writing. 2020 just keeps on giving it seems.

I have been reviewing every document that I have accumulated over the past 16 years. I ran across an article from the Gadsden Times. The day after Judge Malone imposed the 35 year sentence on Mr. Griffith, the Times reported that before sentencing, I read a statement “requesting that Griffith’s sentence be long enough to keep him in prison as long as Anthony’s parents lived.” That is not true. I requested that Mr. Griffith’s sentence be long enough to ensure that he would likely not be eligible for parole as long as my parents live. There is a big difference.

We lost my Mom on January 14, 2015; she was 78. Dad passed on December 16, 2016; he was 86. They never had to endure parole hearings for the man who took the life of their youngest son. For that I am thankful. But this I know with certainty: 15-years, 8-months, and 21-days of a 35-year sentence for murder is not enough. I will be submitting a protest to parole for Mr. Jody Edwin Griffith. I’m hopeful others will too.

*

Retired veteran and civil servant with 37+ years of Federal service. Wannabe writer.

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