Attorneys for the woman accused of felony murder in the death of her boyfriend in Statesboro say she had no choice, acted in self-defense and should be immune from prosecution.
Ashlyn Griffin shot and killed Brandon McCray on June 5, 2020 in their shared residence on Bea Dot Way in Statesboro. She voluntarily gave statements to law enforcement after the shooting, videoed a re-enactment at the scene with detectives, and provided a written statement of her account. She was subsequently arrested and charged with Murder. In July 2020, Chief Superior Court Judge Gates Peed granted bond for Griffin’s case, setting it at $30,000 cash or property, ordering her to wear an ankle monitor, and banishing her from Bulloch County unless she was attending court proceedings.
Her attorneys, Mitchell Warnock and Nelson Carswell of Dublin, filed a Motion seeking immunity from prosecution and the District Attorney’s Office opposed the motion so a hearing was subsequently set for November 8.
How Does An Immunity Hearing Work?
An immunity hearing takes place before a judge without a jury. Unlike in other proceedings, at an immunity hearing, the burden of proof is on the defense but only to a standard that the preponderance of evidence – the fact finder is convinced that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claim is true. This is unlike the standard for the state of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ which exists during a criminal jury trial.
In Georgia, specific statutes grant immunity from prosecution to those who have used deadly force to defend themselves or others from attack. O.C.G.A. §16-3-24.2 provides that an individual “who uses threats or force in accordance with four code sections on defense of self or others, defense of habitation, “stand your ground”/no duty to retreat, or defense of property “shall be immune from criminal prosecution therefore unless in the use of deadly force, such person utilizes a weapon the carrying or possession of which is unlawful by such person…”
There are limitations, including:
- the person seeking to use the defense cannot be the aggressor;
- the person cannot provoke an attack as an excuse to harm the other person;
- the person cannot use the justification defense when committing a felony.
If the judge believes it is more likely self defense than not, he would rule in favor of the defendant.
Background on Relationship of Ashlyn Griffin & Brandon McCray
Ashlyn Griffin moved to Statesboro in 2016 to study at Georgia Southern University. She attended school full time, worked in Pooler, and lived at University Pointe. She met McCray in December 2017 at Midtown Bar & Grill in Statesboro and the two began dating shortly thereafter. He moved in with her in January 2018, though she was quiet about their relationship and her parents, who lived elsewhere, were unaware she was dating him.
In April 2018, a domestic dispute put Griffin in the hospital after McCray reportedly threw objects over their balcony, took her keys and refused to let her leave, choked her on the bed screaming “I’ll kill you,” and kicked her in the stomach repeatedly. Griffin, who was pregnant at the time, ultimately fled the apartment on foot, called a friend at the store around the corner while McCray followed her in her own vehicle. She ran across campus to a friend who picked her up and took her to safety. The incident was reported to law enforcement and McCray was arrested for Aggravated Assault and Theft by Taking the next day. The case was prosecuted by District Attorney Daphne Totten, who was still an ADA at the time, and McCray entered a guilty plea on the offense of Aggravated Assault admitting to the indictment which outlined the choking incident and the verbal threats to kill Griffin. He was sentenced to a brief period of incarceration, 10 years on probation, and an unrelated drug case of marijuana in excess of one ounce and MDMA/ecstasy possession was dead docketed pending completion of his sentence.
While he was incarcerated, Griffin gave birth to their child and his family was an active part of the child’s life, assisting with child care on the weekends so Griffin could work. McCray was released on January 30, 2020 and Griffin allowed him to have visitation with their daughter at times. Their romantic relationship did not immediately resume, but when her weekday childcare options fell through, McCray began helping and sleeping over. They were living together and romantically involved at the time of the shooting on June 5, 2020, a little more than four months later.
On Monday, the Court heard from a number of witnesses including the crime scene analyst, a GBI medical examiner, a Geometry teacher, and neighbors of Griffin and McCray. The Court also watched body camera footage from the responding officer, played video of the reenactment Griffin simulated with detectives, and heard the 911 call Griffin made moments after shooting McCray before she took the stand herself.
Defense attorneys laid the groundwork for the crime scene with Crime Scene Analyst and Detective Keith Holloway of the Statesboro Police Department. Much of his testimony relied on photographs taken, evidence collected and sent off to the lab, and what measurements were taken inside the residence in order to determine trajectory of bullets.
It’s undisputed that Griffin fired two shots – approximately three to four seconds apart – and one shot struck McCray, entering on the left side and exiting his body above his right nipple. The State holds that the first shot missed McCray and the second struck him. That matters, Warnock said, because Detective Jodie Tanner testified during a bond hearing that Griffin was justified in firing the first shot, but was not in the second.
Warnock questioned laser trajectories used to analyze the scene and where the bullet would have to originate from in order to match up with what Griffin testified to hours after the incident. Holloway stated that based on his training and experience, the first shot would not have struck McCray but the second shot did.
The Court also heard from GBI Assistant Medical Examiner Joni Skipper who conducted the autopsy on McCray. Skipper detailed her report and stated that the gunshot wound occurred at an ‘indeterminate range’ but that the bullet had an upward trajectory, entering the body at a lower point than it exited. In her testimony, she stated that she had ‘difficulty seeing how it would be anatomically possible’ for the state’s suggestion on the trajectories of bullets to match what the body suggests.
Three neighbors testified before lunch on the frequent yelling, cursing, and aggressive incidents they witnessed while McCray was living with Griffin. Each detailed incidents where he would lock Griffin out of the house with the baby, throw her keys into bushes as tall as the house, refuse to let her leave, and smash her phone on the concrete. Prosecutors asked each of them if they ever heard McCray threaten Griffin’s life and each replied, ‘No.’
The State also argued earlier in the day that McCray never crossed the threshold of the bathroom to charge Griffin, a point the defense vehemently refuted and brought in a geometry teacher to attempt to debunk. Dublin High School teacher Amber Donnell testified for almost an hour on angles and trajectories of bullets based on the autopsy report and the crime scene photographs and measurements.
The state refuted her testimony on the premise that she did not account for bullets hitting anything inside the body, but Donnell stated a bullet would have to hit something ‘significant’ in order to change trajectory, “like a toilet” as opposed to a rib.
Ashlyn Griffin Takes the Stand
Griffin testified Monday that she initially found McCray to be funny, caring, and a good listener, but that it wasn’t long after they’d been living together that the first incident of violence occurred in mid-January 2018. She had to be up early for class and was awakened twice by McCray ‘being loud’ on the phone. When she asked him a second time to keep it down, Griffin said McCray became angry. “He told me to ‘Shut the F up’ and he came behind me and shoved me. I pushed him back, away from me and he hit me in the face with his fists.” Griffin then tearfully described how he hit her in the head with a metal trash can and he began choking her with both hands before she passed out. She said when came to, he was smacking her face, screaming “Oh my God, I thought I killed you.” She said he apologized, pleaded for her not to call the police and said it would never happen again. Griffin ultimately didn’t call the police or tell her family, who still did not know she was dating McCray, saying she was embarrassed.
Griffin went on to describe other incidents including:
- March 2018 stemming from bringing home the wrong kind of shrimp for dinner. She said the incident left her with bruises and a black eye.She went to a friend’s house for a few hours, returned home and told McCray they needed ‘a break.’ He moved out, but after a week and a conversation with his mother, Griffin said McCray was back again asking for forgiveness.
- Another incident in March 2018 in the presence of McCray’s brother who separated the two after McCray reportedly spit in her face, hit her with his fists, and kicked her in the face with his shoes on. Griffin admitted that she fought back on this occasion.
At the end of March 2018, Griffin found out she was pregnant. The domestic incident that led to Griffin’s hospitalization with contusions on her face and neck and pelvic hemorrhaging occurred a few weeks later and McCray was subsequently jailed without bond. Griffin testified that she went to the DA’s office at one point and asked them not to prosecute the case, explained that she didn’t envision being alone during her first pregnancy, and, of course, that she loved McCray. She visited him at the jail on a handful of occasions and received calls from him as well.
Griffin recounted McCray’s release from incarceration and how their relationship reignited again in 2020. She detailed a tumultuous several months including additional disputes which left her with bruises from being hit with a stick and an incident where McCray smashed her phone on the concrete. McCray again left but was back again in late April.
In early May, Griffin said, frustrated with his lack of employment and contributions to the household, she suggested McCray leave. Griffin said McCray told her he ‘wasn’t going anywhere’ and punched the bathroom door. For the next few weeks, Griffin described the living situation as her ‘walking on eggshells’ and said the couple was no longer intimate sexually.
On the morning of June 5, Griffin says she returned from taking her daughter to daycare and was getting ready for a family event. A dispute arose over damage done to her car while McCray was driving and while she was on the phone with a friend outside, McCray began yelling at her to stop ‘running her mouth’ and ‘spreading her business.’ She stated that he told his friend on the phone that she needed to ‘Hurry up’ or he was going to ‘beat her ass’ and ‘might have to punch this b****.’
Griffin returned inside and got in the shower when she heard McCray yelling, cussing, and banging things around. She says McCray entered the bathroom, pulled the shower curtain down and told her he wanted to ‘F her up.’ She stepped out of the shower and into the bedroom to get a sheet to dry off when he pushed her twice and reportedly told her he was going to ‘make her’ fight him. She said he dumped her purse over, squared up to fight, and shoved her between the bed and the crib. She grabbed a pillow to block his punches, which he grabbed and threw away from her.
Griffin said he was screaming at her, followed her into the bathroom where she slammed the door in his face, making him more irate. McCray, she says, began banging on the door and, though she’d turned the water on to brush her teeth, she ultimately ended up retrieving the gun from the bathroom sink cabinet. She said she’d been moving the gun around in the house since McCray discovered it because she didn’t want him to ‘spazz out and use it on her or someone else.’
Griffin testified that she was racking the gun when he burst in the bathroom and she fired. Warnock asked if she was scared and Griffin replied, ‘Yes. He was going to F me up or kill me.’ She testified that she fired again because she saw a flash and believed he was coming toward her again. She then dropped the gun and exited the bathroom and saw McCray’s feet in the closet. She heard him moaning as she was looking for her phone but could not find it and ran toward the door. She realized she was naked and returned to get a shirt and pants from the bed, ultimately returning a second time to get the gun. Griffin said she was afraid he would use it if he got a hold of it and followed her. She beat on the neighbors door, asked to use their phone, and called 911.
She voluntarily went to the police station for questioning where she said she remained for ‘six or seven hours’ and she believed she had nothing to hide, answering their questions to the best of her abilities. Warnock’s final question to Griffin was whether or not she felt like she had a choice. She replied with a swift and tearful ‘No.’
On cross, Oglesby questioned Griffin’s return to the relationship and whether or not she ever told the district attorney’s office she did not want to prosecute the 2018 case. She also questioned Griffin’s interaction with McCray while a ‘no contact’ order was in place following his sentencing.
Oglesby spent several minutes questioning Griffin about her story and how her initial account on the day of the shooting was not consistent with the reenactment on video or her written statement. Griffin testified repeatedly that there were certain things she could not recall, like whether she locked the door or if she was crouching down when she shot the gun.
The defense concluded their arguments Monday afternoon around 4:45 p.m. and not wanting to begin new testimony only to be interrupted, the State opted to hold off until court reconvened Tuesday morning.
State Moves to Dismiss the Petition for Immunity
Chief Assistant District Attorney Barclay Black, however, did present the court with the Motion, asking Judge Peed to dismiss the defense’s petition altogether. Black cited a 2009 case (Lightning v. State) and argued that the defense had not met its burden to call the acts justified because Griffin said it was ‘unintentional,’ that she did not intend to kill him. Black said, “You don’t own it, if you don’t admit to the underlying crime, there is no justification…You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”
Warnock rebutted that Griffin intentionally grabbed the gun, admitted she shot him, and admitted that if she hadn’t shot him, ‘he would have killed me.’ “There is no dispute. We’ve set forth an affirmative defense.”
Under Georgia law, self defense does not require that an individual retreat before acting and traditional self defense education for both citizens and law enforcement suggests that an individual shoot to ‘stop the threat,’ not necessarily ‘to kill.’
Judge Peed said he would consider the arguments and the law and would enter an Order Tuesday morning before the hearing begins.
The State is expected to present its rebuttal with Detective Jodie Tanner along with two other individuals outside of law enforcement.