Beth Ann Manis, 44, was originally charged with first-degree murder and faced the possibility of life in prison without parole for the Oct. 1, 2016 fatal shooting of her niece by marriage — 25-year-old Brittany Murray — just outside Manis’ mobile home.
Following a two day trial, it took about two hours of deliberation Thursday for jurors to find Manis guilty of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, a Class C felony punishable by 3-6 years.
The jury imposed no fine, and sentencing was scheduled for Aug. 31 before Judge John Dugger. Manis was allowed to remain free on her current bond.
A dispute erupted between Manis and Murray after Manis was informed that her brother-in-law, Murray’s father, had supposedly been making claims that the two of them had a sexual relationship.
What followed was an exchange of ugly phone calls and threatening text messages. Murray; her mother, Tammy Stapleton; and fiancé, John-Michael Cook arrived at Manis’ residence at 5127 Carters Valley Road, Lot 6, near Church Hill, around 9:35 p.m. on Oct.1, 2016.
There were different accounts of what happened in the moments leading to the shooting, but when Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived, they found Murray lying dead in the middle of the roadway in front of Manis’ trailer with a gunshot wound to the head.
The case boiled down to whether the jury would believe the prosecution’s assertion that the shooting was premeditated or the defense argument that it was self-defense.
Evidence presented by Attorney General Dan Armstrong and Assistant Attorney General Ryan Blackwell attempted to demonstrate that Murray was lured to Manis’ residence with text message invitations and challenges.
Prosecution witnesses testified that Murray had gone to Manis’ home that night to pick up a carpet shampooer and the .357-caliber revolver used in the shooting which apparently belonged to Murray’s father.
Prosecutors repeatedly drew the attention of jurors to the texts sent by Manis beginning about 45 minutes prior to the shooting which included messages such as “Come on, cussing on the phone is lame”; “You know where I live”; and “Have a plastic surgeon ready.”
There was also quite a bit of foul language and name-calling in Manis’ texts.
“You can’t provoke a fight and invite confrontation and then claim self-defense,” Armstrong told the jury during his closing argument.
Armstrong added, “(Manis) took several intentional steps before she fired her gun.”
Public defenders Todd Estep and Greg Eichelman called three witnesses Tuesday, the last of which was Manis, who testified that prior to Oct. 1, 2016 she had always gotten along with Murray.
Manis said that on that day, however, Murray had said “horrible stuff” to hurt her feelings, and the text messages she sent back were “the most horrible, vulgar things to hurt her, which was wrong.”
Manis said she had no idea that Murray would actually come to her home that night, and when they arrived she was in bed with her son, who was 3 at the time and was the only other person at home with her.
Manis testified that a neighbor knocked on her door and told her they had arrived, and she saw them exit the vehicle in a rage. Manis said she they screamed that they were there to “kick her a—” and “stomp her skull,” and she feared for the safety of herself and her child.
She ran and retrieved the pistol from a bedroom closet, and when she returned to the porch she heard someone say, “She’s got a gun. She’s got a gun.”
“I screamed, ‘Go away,’ ” Manis testified.
Manis said Stapleton attempted to restrain Murray, but Murray broke away, and when she was within about four strides of her, she fired the gun at her.
“Brittany charged straight at me,” Manis testified. “... I didn’t want a mushy skull. I didn’t want to be beat to death, and for my son to witness that. ... The rage and craziness was off the charts. They had to be high on something to be at that level.”
One major point argued by the prosecution was that Murray was shot in the middle of the roadway, which would debunk Manis’ claim that she was in danger and being charged by Murray.
Stapleton and Cook testified Wednesday that Murray was shot in the road moments after she exited the vehicle, with no warning from Manis, and there was no threat, rage, or attempted assault by any of them toward Manis.
Dr. Nicole Masian, forensic pathologist at ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine, testified Tuesday morning that based on evidence at the scene, there is no way Murray was shot in the small grassy area in front of the porch, as Manis claimed.
At the most, Murray was rolled over while lying in the roadway, but there were no blood trail or drag marks indicating the body was moved, Masian testified.
A neighbor, Danny Lawson, testified Tuesday that he observed Murray in the grassy area near the porch shortly after hearing the shots, and that he didn’t see any blood until someone started trying to resuscitate her, and it began flowing from her wound.
Armstrong questioned Lawson’s credibility, noting that the witness never made that statement to police and only told a public defender’s office investigator that story about a month ago.