Prosecutors faced a series of obstacles Monday as the court kicked off the first day of the Ashlyn Griffin murder trial in Bulloch County.
Authorities arrested Griffin after she shot and killed her boyfriend, Brandon McCray, in June 2020. Griffin claimed self-defense from the onset of the interrogations, citing both an altercation on the day of the shooting and a series of abusive incidents over the course of their relationship. District Attorney Daphne Totten presented the case to a grand jury and moved forward on Felony Murder and Aggravated Assault charges.
The case is particularly noteworthy because Totten prosecuted McCray for a felony offense in 2018. Statesboro Police charged McCray with Aggravated Assault for beating of Griffin while she was pregnant with their child. At the time, he choked, strangled, and then kicked Griffin in the stomach. McCray ultimately pled guilty and a judge sentenced him to a period of confinement. A year and a half after that sentence, Totten began her prosecution of Griffin.
First Day of Ashlyn Griffin Trial Begins
The first day of the Ashlyn Griffin trial brought dramatic opening statements. Both Assistant District Attorney Russell Jones and Dublin defense attorney Mitchell Warnock implored the jury to consider the facts, though the two lenses are stark comparisons. Chief ADA Barclay Black sat second chair for the state and routinely coached Jones throughout the day. Jones, however, is no stranger to murder cases, as he tried the Pinholster murder case Effingham County in 2019.
The State’s Case
Jurors heard from seven witnesses for the state on Monday, including:
- SPD Detective and Crime Scene Analyst Keith Holloway
- GBI Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Joni Skipper
- GBI Toxicologist Natalie Hipps
- Former GBI Toxicologist Artistides Passas
- SPD Detective Dustin Cross
- Jasmine King, sister of Brandon McCray
- Cornelia Stokes, sister of Brandon McCray
Ballistics and the State’s Claims Against Griffin
Both Detective Holloway and Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Joni Skipper testified at pre-trial proceedings, but Monday brought more in-depth questions by both the state and defense counsel.
Skipper, in particular, set a tone for the defense on the issue of stippling. The state first contended that McCray had no injuries indicating a tussle other than a scratch on his wrist. Then, the lack of stippling (residue from gun powder) on McCray’s body suggested that Griffin was not in close range when she shot him.
On cross examination, however, defense counsel probed Skipper on alternatives. During questioning, she asserted that absent stippling could be caused by clothing. Warnock also pressed Skipper on whether or not a person would be incapacitated after being shot as McCray was. Skipper said ‘not necessarily,’ particularly because the brain and spinal cord were not impacted.
And, in perhaps the most captivating line of questioning, Warnock asked Skipper about the trajectories of the bullets. Warnock asked if, based on her autopsy, McCray had to be upside down or ‘in a headstand’ in order for the state’s suggested bullet trajectories to match the entry and exit wounds on McCray. Skipper replied, ‘Yes.’
GBI Toxicologist Natalie Hipps testified that alcohol was not detected in McCray’s blood from the time of his death. Similarly, Toxicologist Aristides Passas testified that McCray tested positive for two forms of THC. On cross examination, Warnock asked Passas about the half-life of other substances. Specifically, he probed whether the absence of a substance could completely rule out if an individual ingested a substance.
Body Camera Footage, Evidentiary Disputes, and Excusal of the Jury
Prosecutors called SPD Detective Dustin Cross to testify about his interaction with Griffin on the day of the shooting. ADA Jones asked Cross to explain Griffin’s waiver of Miranda rights and how her statements were made freely and willingly. Cross also videoed Griffin’s reenactment with Statesboro Police after the incident. His acknowledgement in doing so laid the foundation for the state to show jurors the footage.
In the roughly twenty minute video, jurors captured a glimpse of Griffin’s demeanor as shared her explanation with investigators. On video, she’s seen explaining her movements, where McCray stood, why items were on the floor, and who said what.
Point of Contention
Cross’s testimony also prompted a brief removal of the jury for an evidentiary matter to which the defense objected. The state sought to introduce a USB drive of Griffin’s phone extraction, which Cross downloaded in the days after the shooting.
The state argued it did not plan to present printouts of the phone data to jurors. Instead, the contents of the USB drive would be ‘talked about.’ ADA Barclay Black told Judge F. Gates Peed that they wouldn’t go into irrelevant details but wanted to ‘reserve the right’ to do so if necessary.
“Show me how you can show relevance, period,” Peed told Black.
Black said the phone included communications by Griffin about her relationship. Warnock disagreed. He said the introduction of texts with non-subpoenaed parties was merely an attempt to prejudice the jury against Griffin.
ADA Jones then referenced an evidentiary precedent in the Pinholster murder trial in Effingham, which Peed presided over three years prior. Jones, however, was not able to finish. “Pinholster is dead. And that was another case,” Peed told him.
Ultimately, Peed excused himself from the bench for a brief recess. He returned to sustain the objection of the defense. The cell phone data would not be admitted into evidence, citing a lack of relevancy.
When the jury returned, Warnock cross examined Detective Cross. After a series of questions, Cross testified that Griffin was not told that McCray had died until the very end of her six-hour interview with police. At that point, detectives gave Griffin a break to compose herself because she was so upset.
McCray’s Family Testifies
Two of McCray’s sisters also took the stand Monday. Both testified that they were familiar with incidents of violence in the relationship, but that Griffin was always the aggressor.
Jasmine King testified that she was aware of two incidents of violence by Griffin against McCray. She knew, she said, because she and her brother were ‘close.’
On cross examination, Warnock asked King about messages she sent to Griffin that alluded to the contrary. He also pressed King on her knowledge of McCray entering a guilty plea in the same courtroom. King was asked if she knew McCray accepted responsibility for choking, strangling, and kicking Griffin while she was pregnant. King denied any knowledge of the incident. Warnock asked if she was aware that a judge sentenced McCray to jail time because of it. King replied that McCray went to jail for “something else.” She also testified under oath that she was unaware of any assaults of Griffin by McCray.
Cornelia J. Stokes testified under state questioning that Griffin told her one month before the shooting that she was “going to shoot her brother.” McCray and his friends were also present, but according to Stokes, did not reply. She said there was no reaction or emotion to the statement by Griffin.
On cross, Warnock presented Stokes with the written statement she provided to police in the weeks after the shooting. In doing so, he suggested her positions changed. Stokes said she could not remember everything she said. She, too, testified that she did not know McCray went to jail for assaulting Griffin.
The first day of the Ashlyn Griffin trial concluded at 4:59 p.m.
The trial will reconvene on Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. The court set aside a full week for trial and jury deliberations.