Brown v. Clarke

Decision Date11 May 2022
Docket NumberCivil Action 7:21cv00302
PartiesGARY WAYNE BROWN, Petitioner, v. HAROLD W. CLARKE, DIRECTOR, Respondent.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Virginia

Elizabeth K. Dillon, United States District Judge

Gary Wayne Brown, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging his Smyth County Circuit Court convictions for first-degree murder, abduction conspiracy to commit abduction, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, for which he was sentenced to 63 years in prison. Respondent has filed a motion to dismiss, to which Brown has responded, and the matter is now ripe for disposition. After careful review of the record, the transcripts, the arguments of the parties, and the applicable law, the court concludes that this petition must be dismissed for the reasons stated below.


On October 22, 2012, an arrest warrant against Brown was issued for the first-degree murder of Steven Williams earlier that day in Smyth County, Virginia. Upon Brown's release from the hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, on October 29, 2013 Brown was arrested and held without bond. Allen Mathews, Jason Martin, and Helena Taylor were also charged in connection with Williams' murder. Following a preliminary hearing on April 9, 2013, the matter was certified to the grand jury against all four defendants. The grand jury issued indictments on June 25, 2013, charging all four defendants with murder in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-32, abduction in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-47, use of a firearm while committing or attempting to commit a felony in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-53.1, conspiracy to commit murder in violation of Virginia Code §§ 18.2-22 and 18.2-32, and conspiracy to commit abduction in violation of Virginia Code §§ 18.2-22 and 18.2-47. Before Brown's case went to trial, each of Brown's co-defendants entered guilty pleas and received agreed-upon sentences. Mathews entered an Alford[1] plea to abduction and conspiracy to commit abduction on November 25, 2013. Martin entered a guilty plea to both conspiracy charges on January 16, 2014. Taylor pled guilty to murder as an accessory, abduction, and conspiracy to commit abduction on March 3, 2014.

Brown's court-appointed counsel obtained a psychological evaluation of Brown for competency to stand trial and sanity at the time of the offense. The examiner found him competent to stand trial and sane, noting that his only findings of any significance were a few traits associated with paranoid personality disorder. Counsel obtained a transcript of the preliminary hearing, requested funds to hire a forensic expert to evaluate an alleged digital recording of the incident, and filed a motion to suppress Brown's statement to Detective Eller of the Smyth County Sheriff's Department. The statement was not audio recorded, but the detective wrote the statement and had Brown sign it. The interview was conducted October 22, 2012, in the emergency room of Johnson Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, where Brown was being evaluated for a gunshot wound to the groin, and before he was transported to the regional hospital in Tennessee for trauma surgery. Hospital employees advised Detective Eller that Brown had been administered pain medicine through his IV about 10 minutes before the interrogation began. The trial court found the statement voluntary and denied the motion to suppress on April 23, 2014. Brown's statement was consistent with his later trial testimony, except for the last paragraph the deputy had written, which was different from the earlier part of Brown's statement and from his trial testimony. That last paragraph, likely the reason for the suppression motion, read:

I knew he was coming over, we had him to come over. We had Allen's buddy call him to come over. Allen hadn't had his heat pump running in two years. It was my idea to call him to come over, so I could confront him. I didn't want to get caught beating his ass on camera, then he pulled a gun so what do you do.

Comm. Ex. Mot. 1, April 23, 2014.

During the four-day jury trial that began April 28, 2014, the following evidence was presented, in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party: Brown believed that his fiancee, Melissa, was having a relationship with Williams, even though Melissa denied such a relationship. By his own testimony and the testimony of Matthews, Martin, and Taylor, Brown wanted to confront Williams about the suspected relationship. Coincidentally, Williams lived with Taylor's former sister-in-law, Kimberly, who had custody of Taylor's daughter; according to Brown, Matthews, and Martin, Taylor was upset because Kimberly and Williams would not let Taylor visit her daughter. Martin and Taylor were both living in Matthews' home, temporarily, Taylor having lived there five months and Martin about three weeks. Brown and Matthews had been close friends for several years, and Brown met Taylor and then Martin after each had moved into Matthews' home. Matthews' heat pump had not been working properly because it would run continuously, overheating the house and never shutting off. Martin called Williams and asked him to come over to see if he could fix the heat pump.

Only Martin testified that the phone call was a ruse to set Williams up, so that Brown and Taylor could confront Williams, and that the whole idea had been Brown's. Martin even said that Brown gave him Williams' phone number. Matthews and Taylor both testified that there was a real problem with the heat pump, and Matthews asked Taylor and Martin if either of them knew someone who could fix it for a low cost. Martin recommended Williams.

According to both Matthews and Brown, they had plans to go crossbow hunting on Monday, October 22, 2012. The Saturday before, Matthews said he spoke with Brown on the phone and mentioned that Williams was coming by to look at the heat pump Monday morning, which might delay or preempt the hunting trip. Brown testified that this was the first he knew that Williams was going to be there.[2] Brown denied that he had asked Martin, Matthews, or anyone else to lure Williams to the house.

Sometime between 7:00 and 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Brown showed up at Matthews' door with his hunting bag, dressed in camouflage, and with a holstered pistol strapped to his side. Another pistol was in his hunting bag. Once inside Matthews' house, Brown duct-taped his sheathed hunting knife to his leg, which he said was his usual custom before going hunting. Brown told Matthews that he wanted to confront Williams about whether he was having an affair with Melissa before they went hunting. Brown even said he had a digital recorder to catch the whole conversation, so he could confront Melissa with the evidence once Williams admitted the affair. Brown denied that he had ever planned to assault or kill Williams, and he insisted that he had a gun for self-protection only, because he believed that Williams carried a pistol. (Deer hunting with a gun was not in season.)

By all accounts, Matthews went outside to do some work in the yard. Around 10:00 in the morning, Brown went outside to the detached outbuilding/garage. He left a walkie talkie inside the house, telling Taylor and Martin to let him know when Williams approached; he took the other walkie talkie to the garage. In the garage, he looked for something appropriate with which to protect himself and found the axe handle with the head broken off. He remained concealed in the garage, waiting for Williams to arrive. His discussions with Taylor and Martin on the walkie talkies were captured on the digital recorder, and they told him when Williams' truck appeared. While he waited in the garage, he also talked to himself, saying “My buddy Gary's wanting the truth. You tell him to his face you f***ed her.” (Id. At 78.) Brown remained concealed from view and waited until Williams was away from his truck and facing the outdoor AC unit, so Brown could approach from behind.

Brown described the confrontation when he ran out, carrying the axe handle and wearing a camouflage mask on his face, and told Williams to get on the ground. Williams began fighting to take the axe handle from him, and they wrestled on the ground. Brown claimed that the only time Williams might have been struck by the axe handle was during that struggle. When Brown fell to the ground after Williams got the axe handle away from him, he felt disoriented as he got up. He thought he saw Williams standing up already, swinging something, but then he heard Taylor yelling at Williams to lie down on the ground. He realized that Taylor was swinging something at Williams and hit him very hard. Then he saw Williams pull out his gun. Brown backed up as far as he could, up to the fence, and then he felt pain in his groin and realized he had been shot. He saw Williams point the gun at Taylor and shoot, so he pulled his gun to try and protect her. He testified that he had been a top-rated marksman in the Army and was trying to shoot the gun out of Williams' hand, and he kept firing until Williams dropped the gun. Then he hollered to Matthews that he had been shot and needed to go to the hospital. (Trial Tr. vol. 4, 11-88, May 1, 2014.)

Brown's micro-recorder was on the entire morning while they waited for Williams to arrive, during the shooting, and when Matthews drove Brown to the hospital. The Commonwealth played the entire recording, over two hours long, for the jury. During the first hour and forty-five minutes, Brown talked about sneaking up on Williams to confront him, making statements such as:

“I'm just going to back him up against the wall and ask questions.” (Id. at 76.)

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