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For the crime of shooting at a deputy,  driving off in his stolen police cruiser: 24 years

South Boston News
John Phillip Martin / March 17, 2014
John Phillip Martin, who eluded a Halifax County Sheriff’s deputy, fired a pistol in a face off with the officer and stole his police cruiser in a desperate getaway attempt, is set to spend the next 24 years in prison after being convicted this week in Halifax.

A nine-woman, three-man jury found the Scottsburg-area man guilty of carjacking, attempted voluntary manslaughter of a police officer, use of a firearm in committing a felony and other lesser offenses at the conclusion of a three-day trial late Friday in Halifax County Circuit Court.

The jury rejected prosecution arguments that Martin should be convicted of attempted capital murder for firing at Deputy Stanley Britton Jr., who pulled over Martin on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 23, 2011, to arrest him on a court order related to failure to pay child support.

Martin’s defense lawyers assailed Britton’s account of events that day and a subsequent investigation by Virginia State Police — a strategy that culminated with the jury’s decision to forgo a guilty verdict of attempted capital murder of a police officer, which carries a maximum of life in prison, or second-degree murder. Instead the jury settled for attempted voluntary manslaughter, committed in the heat of passion.

The jury recommended five years in prison on the manslaughter charge, the maximum penalty under sentencing guidelines.

Yet try as they might, Martin’s lawyers could not dissuade the jury from convicting their client of a related charge of carjacking — an offense which carries the stiffest sanction, a minimum of 15 years in prison, of the five convictions handed down by the jury.

In total, Martin received a recommended sentence of 24 years, 3 months. With time already served — Martin has been behind bars since his arrest — he is looking at spending at least the next 20 years in prison.

One of his lawyers pleaded with the jury to keep the punishment to the sentencing minimum: 18 years.

“He made a terrible, impulsive decision that he will now be punished for,” said Andrew Childress, a Lynchburg lawyer representing Martin. “I would submit 18 years is a lifetime.”

Countered Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Will Hamilton, who pressed the jury to hand out a “significant punishment”: “What is more significant than trying to take someone’s life?”

It took little more than an hour for jurors to return with news of the guilty verdicts, with Martin’s family sitting several rows back in the Circuit Court hearing room to receive the outcome. Pending a presentence report, visiting Judge Jonathan Apgar of Roanoke, who presided over the trial, will decide whether to uphold the jury recommendation.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin offered her reaction afterward: “We believe that in certain matters of serious concern to our community, like this case, the citizens of Halifax County should have a voice. Through jury trials, they have that voice.

“The Commonwealth is satisfied that the people of Halifax County have spoken. We are especially grateful that Stanley Britton, Jr., was unharmed, and that, with the end of this trial, comes some measure of closure for the Britton family.”

A harrowing encounter

Testimony over three days painted a dangerous, bullet-ridden crime scene on North Terry’s Bridge Road, where Deputy Britton had tracked down Martin to serve a capias after Martin earlier had failed to appear in court on a child support matter. But the two principals, Britton and Martin, each testifying at length during the trial, offered dramatically different accounts of what happened that Sunday afternoon.

Britton, a 14-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, said he pulled over the vehicle on suspicion that Martin was the driver, knowing there was a warrant out for his arrest. Britton said he encountered a suspect who was “very nervous,” aggressive and evasive — “which made me uneasy.”

Asked to present identification, Martin initially claimed his name was Tony Lacks. When he finally complied with the officer’s order, he did so by emphatically thrusting his driver’s license out the car window, according to Britton’s account.

As testimony subsequently established, Martin had been able to get ahold of Tony Lacks’ discarded Social Security card and other identifying papers while helping to move a mobile home where Lacks previously had resided. Initially, he produced the paperwork to pass on a false identity. But Deputy Britton, who testified that he knows Lacks and realized Martin was lying, took out his handcuffs and mace and held them up in each hand.

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” Britton recalled telling Martin, referring to his intention to make an arrest.

Martin reacted by jamming his Mazda truck into first gear and spinning the tires to make a sudden getaway. Britton said he took his mace canister and sprayed Martin on the side of the head as he drove off. The truck traveled a short distance on North Terry’s Bridge Road, but it had a flat tire and lost power going up a hill. Britton, in hot pursuit in his police cruiser, quickly caught up.

His truck stalled some two car lengths ahead of Britton’s cruiser, Martin stepped out into the road. According to the deputy, the suspect emerged with both arms by his side, his palms pointed outward. Britton said he spotted a small, silver pistol in one hand. Britton reached for his own weapon, but “before I could get my arms extended, I was being shot at,” he testified.

Taking cover behind the door of his police cruiser, Britton said he kept his eyes on his assailant as Martin quick-stepped in his direction, arm cocked forward, his pistol pointed straight at him. Mimicking Martin’s charge for jury members, Britton strode around the hearing room with stiff-legged, rapid steps. Britton said he heard several shots and fired back at his assailant. He thought he hit his target, but Martin kept approaching.

With the gunfire continuing, Britton said he scrambled from his driver’s side door around to the rear of his vehicle, keeping low to the ground. “I returned fire from my vehicle because I didn’t want to stand up and catch one in the head,” he testified. In the exchange of bullets, Britton blasted out the cruiser’s rear windshield and shot up the body.

Within seconds, Britton continued, Martin was reaching over the police cruiser, standing on his toes, and trying to shoot down at him.

When the gunfire stopped, Britton said he made a snap decision to sprint to a patch of woods nearby. He didn’t make it — instead tripping in a ditch and landing on his gun, which became jammed with dirt. By the time he was able to get back on his feet, clear the firearm and reload, Britton testified, he saw Martin had taken off in the police cruiser and was speeding down Terry’s Bridge Road toward U.S. 360.

Suspect takes flight

Asked on cross-examination how many shots were fired at him, Britton said he was sure there were at least three — maybe four.

“The weapon was constantly pointed in my direction, and I’m constantly hearing shots,” Britton told William Lawrence of Lynchburg, the other lawyer on Martin’s defense team, during cross-examination.

“He was walking towards you, just like a crazy person?” asked Lawrence.

“Yes, sir,” Britton answered.

He and his assailant were separated by about 15 feet during much of the gun battle, Britton said. The incident represented the third time he has been shot at in his life — twice in the line of duty as a police officer, and once while serving in combat with the military in the Iraq War.

“Are you trained to manage your stress under fire?” asked Commonwealth’s Attorney Quackenbush Martin.

“Yes, ma’am.”

He grimaced at the memory of how the exchange of fire with Martin concluded: “I missed.”

By Britton’s account, it was the first time in his 16-year career in law enforcement that he did not draw his gun in making a felony stop.

There was only one witness at the scene: a elderly woman who lives on North Terry’s Bridge Road who had stepped outside that afternoon to take her dog out for a Sunday drive. Britton testified that the woman, once she grasped the scene unfolding in front of her, screamed in fear: “She was terribly upset,” he told the court.

His police training guided his actions once he saw the bystander: Britton said he jumped in front of the woman, facing away from her, to form a human shield in the event of more gunfire. Britton testified he asked the woman to inspect his back and tell him if he had been shot: “Sometimes your adrenaline is so high you just don’t know.”

Martin had disappeared by the time backup help arrived — Britton put in the call once the suspect made his first attempt at a getaway. In Martin’s subsequent testimony, the defendant said he thought about driving home to explain what happened to his wife, but when he heard his name and address aired on the police radio, he turned around and headed east on Route 360 toward Charlotte County.

Later, he would ditch the police cruiser and take a truck that he said was occupied by “five or six Mexican guys” speaking excitedly in Spanish after he pulled up in the cruiser. Before the day was over, Martin abandoned that vehicle, too; he ran off into woods to spend the night.

The next day, an intense police search turned up the suspect: inside an empty Charlotte County home, where Martin said he had gone to hide. He had gained entry through a rotted back door, went upstairs and crawled under a bed to avoid being seen. He hadn’t slept in days, Martin testified. When police entered the dwelling, he didn’t think about resisting arrest: “They weren’t shooting at me.”

In describing the confrontation with the sheriff’s deputy the day before, Martin said he was “panicked” and “everything happened so quick I just did stupid stuff.” He also admitted lying to Britton about his being Tony Lacks, and knew he would be “busted” on the child support warrant.

“I made a whole lot of mistakes, I admit that. I should have just said ‘you got me’ when I was pulled over. I might have spent a year in jail for [not paying] child support.”

But during lengthy testimony on the trial’s final day, Martin said that it was Britton, not he, who fired first as Martin stepped out of the Mazda truck. From that moment forward, he did anything he could to save his life as the encounter swirled out of control.

As soon as he exited his truck, Martin said he saw gunshots exploding at his feet, kicking bits of pavement into the air. “I panicked, I figured he was already shooting at me …. I looked down the front side of my body to see if I’d been shot. I was praying to God.”

At the point of the gun

Martin had a gun in his hand — an antique pistol, a derringer that once belonged to his grandfather — but he had not gotten out of the truck with the idea of shooting the officer, he testified. Instead, he took the gun out of the truck’s glovebox to get rid of it. The pistol presented a quandary: As a prior convicted felon, he knew possession of firearms was a criminal offense.

He had taken the pistol days earlier from his father, without his knowledge, and left it in the glovebox.

Martin said he wanted to throw the pistol into the woods to prevent Britton from discovering it, but couldn’t get a clear toss through the truck window or door once he came under pursuit.

Out in the open, confused and stinging from mace, and exposed to gunfire, Martin said he made a snap decision: to run toward the officer, but at an angle into nearby woods. He admitted to firing the derringer, but said he aimed the shots off to the side into an embankment, believing the shots would scare or distract the deputy.

“In my mind, once I got to the woods I could toss the derringer,” he said.

Martin testified that he aimed to continue running to towards the highway and try there again to escape.

“All I remember was I was praying the whole time,” he said. “I was saying in my own mind, ‘Please God, save me.”

Asked by his lawyer why he made the decision to flee, Martin replied: “Because he was trying to kill me.”

Why not simply drop the gun? “I just wasn’t thinking,” he continued.

Martin said he ran as fast as he could, contrary to the deputy’s description of a quick but deliberate gait. Martin said he decided to head towards the woods behind Britton for two reasons: One, flight in the other direction meant he’d be struggling uphill in plain view of the officer — “all he had to do was aim at me and shoot me in the back” — and two, the sprint downhill meant he’d be forcing Britton to hit a moving target.

Firing the pistol was only to create a distraction, he said.

“It’s very loud,” said Martin.

“I figured if I shot it into an embankment [Britton would] duck and give me time to get away. I was running as fast as I could run.”

The derringer — its use during the incident, Martin’s reasons for taking it from his father, the weapon’s features — emerged as a major point of contention during the trial. In her cross-examination of Martin, Quackenbush Martin (no relation) pressed the defendant to explain why he had taken the gun in the first place, and whether he considered what might happen if he fired it.

Quackenbush Martin pressed the defendant: “Did you wonder whether you had hit him?”

“Yes ma’am. I was worried about that,” Martin answered.

She continued: “You know if a regular person pulls a gun on an officer, that officer is going to pull a gun on you?” Seizing on Martin’s own description of his actions as “improvised,” Quackenbush Martin said, “Part of that improvised plan [was] to scare the officer away from his car, right? Did you regard your plan as having worked?”

“I guess I don’t understand your question,” Martin replied, saying there was no plan: “It’s just what happened.”

As for why he had taken the weapon from his father without his knowledge in the first place, Martin admitted he had hatched a scheme for the weapon, never carried out: he would travel to Danville and use it to rob drug dealers.

Unemployed for the past five years, broke and behind on his child support payments, Martin said he was desperate for money but unable to find a job in construction, his line of work, because of past felony larceny and breaking and entering offenses on his record. In Danville, he said, he thought he could rob “not just any person,” but “rich crack dealers with their nice cars” and “big rims.”

“Hey, it’s not going to hurt if I take some money from them. They’re just going to get it again,” Martin testified about his thought process.

“It’s not fair they can sell crack, sell cocaine, and I can’t make a living” as a construction worker, he said.

Upon being pulled over, Martin said he knew that if Britton arrested him, police would search the vehicle and find the pistol. He said he had forgotten about the gun inside the glovebox until Britton started to question him. “I was going to give up at that point” — when he remembered having the weapon.

“I was panicking, I guess,” he told Quackenbush Martin. “I just wanted to get rid of the gun.”

Of the escalation of action, Martin said: “I’ve always heard people say, you back someone in a corner, that’s [when they are] dangerous. At that time, I was making foolish mistakes, one after another. I was trying not to get shot. I was trying to stay alive.”

Asked by one of his lawyers if he wanted “to stay out of jail so bad you’d kill a law enforcement officer,” Martin responded softly, “No sir.”

Attempting to sow doubts

For their part, the defense lawyers seized on another ambiguity with the gun: the fact the derringer held only two bullets, and its casings must be removed by hand. There’s no way that Martin could have fired three or four times at Britton, as the deputy alleged in his testimony, said Lawrence as he delivered a withering critique of the prosecution case in his closing argument.

Lawrence honed in on Britton’s assertion that he had been shot at at least three times, arguing that it couldn’t actually have happened that way — given the gun holds only two bullets, and no evidence suggests Martin reloaded. That, plus other aspects of the deputy’s account, raised reasonable doubts about what really happened that day, he said.

“Their key witness took the stand and said something that he bet his credibility on, that we know is scientifically impossible,” said Lawrence, referring to the derringer’s two-bullet capacity.

“It is a scientific fact that he lied to you,” he told jury members.

Furthermore, contrary to the assertion that Martin was shooting before the deputy had a chance to draw his service pistol, Lawrence argued that Britton’s training dictates that he would be the first to fire in a dangerous situation: ”Every single felony stop he draws his weapon, except this one,” said Lawrence, citing Britton’s own testimony regarding his police training.

“We want officers to be safe and assume” they will draw their weapons in threatening situations, continued Lawrence. But that wasn’t Britton’s story, he continued: “He stakes his entire credibility that John Martin shot first. Deputy Britton shot first, and that makes sense. But that’s not what he told you.”

Lawrence also questioned the absence of ballistics evidence showing that Martin had fired directly at the officer — a Virginia State Police investigation turned up no traces of .38 caliber shots from the derringer — and argued that “you can’t come up with a single piece of evidence to corroborate Deputy Britton’s story”: no .38 bullet holes in his vehicle, nor spent casings on the ground where the gun battle took place.

Lawrence also questioned whether Virginia State Police investigators made a credible effort to determine if Martin’s version of events could be true.

“Where’s the in-car video?” he mused. “It would be really to nice to decide what happened, to actually see from the inside the police car what’s going on …. I don’t think there was even an investigation done of any competency, even a halfway decent investigation to give you corroborating evidence for the officer who lied to you.”

Lastly, Lawrence pointed to the testimony of the one independent party who witnessed the confrontation, the elderly woman who lives on North Terry’s Bridge Road. Contradicting Britton’s testimony, said Lawrence, the witness had denied screaming at any time during the episode.

Speculating that Britton may have altered his story to protect his reputation or job, Lawrence contrasted his testimony with that of his client, Martin. Lawrence conceded Martin was “the bad guy, by his own truthful admission,” who is “guilty of some things,” including lying to an officer when asked for identification and driving off from a traffic stop. But as to what happened between the two men, Martin gave the only believable version, his lawyer said.

“He’s guilty of many things …. There’s a million things you can say he’s guilty of” — but attempted capital murder of a police officer and the premeditated act of carjacking his vehicle are not among them.

“Are we going to judge John Martin guilty because he instinctively chose that option” to steal the patrol car in a desperate bid for safety? “Did John Martin wake up that morning and say, ‘I think I’ll steal a police cruiser, maybe I can sell it on the open market’?” Lawrence said to the jury.

“How about this: ‘I’ll kill a cop, that’ll be good for me.’ Because he carried a fake ID?”

Calling Martin an “easy target” for the prosecution, Lawrence implored the jury to remember that the Commonwealth must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. “Don’t be 90 percent certain, folks. These are very serious charges,” he said.

Prosecution rebuttal

Quackenbush Martin, delivering the Commonwealth’s closing argument, made her own attacks on the veracity of trial testimony — by Martin. She said the defendant is a felon, a liar and a desperate man who had “everything to lose” in his encounter with Britton, and who hatched a plan built on a scaffold of deceptions.

“He knows if he gets arrested, police will find the gun. He knows he is a felon,” said Quackenbush Martin. “He knows he’s looking at serious prison time” for firearms possession. “He’s trying to figure [a way out]. He tried to get out by lying. That didn’t work. He tried to get out by eluding. That’s not working.”

A plan took shape — “a series of decisions, if you will” — with the defendant reaching into the truck’s glovebox to grab the gun that he had been carrying around illegally. Mocking Martin’s testimony that he never intended to shoot Britton, Quackenbush Martin said, “When a person points a firearm at someone and fires, it’s simply not enough to say ‘I didn’t mean to kill them.’

“He had a choice. We know he could have stayed in his car. He could have given himself up. He could have run away. To him, he’s at the end of his road.”

Martin’s plan was to kill Britton and carjack his vehicle, she repeated.

“Who’s the most believable? Which version of events should you believe?” Quackenbush Martin asked of the jury. “He told us he wouldn’t kill to get away, but we know he lied, he lied to the officer, and I would submit he lied today. And he’s a felon, which is a circumstance that you can consider today.”

After the end of closing arguments, the jury retired to chambers and then came back with its answer: Martin is guilty not of capital murder, but voluntary manslaughter; but in a disappointment for the defense, jurors also found in favor of carjacking — “an overcharge,” Lawrence argued strenuously, when a more appropriate charge would be a vehicle theft committed in the heat of the moment.

Before rendering a recommended sentence, the jury heard from one more witness: Oscar Martin, John Martin’s father, who in almost inaudible tones described his son as man who has made mistakes, but works hard when given the opportunity, and is “a good father” to his children.

“If at some point he is released from jail, will the family be there to support him?” Martin was asked by one of his son’s attorneys.

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

The lawyers representing Martin indicated during the trial that they would reserve the right to appeal, pending the outcome.

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A $10 million dollar courthouse improvement but no in car audio and video for law enforcement vehicles?


I would have gone for the car theft not the car jacking if I had been on the jury.

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