Curtis guilty; gets life in prison

FRONT ROYAL — A West Virginia man had no notable reaction when the jury returned a guilty verdict in his Warren County Circuit Court murder case.

Clay Marshall Curtis, 64, of Welch, W. Va., was sentenced to life in prison last week for the 2014 first-degree murder of Simon Funk, 42.

The jury, which consisted of seven women and five men, reached its verdict Thursday after hearing testimony from more than 30 witnesses and seeing more than 60 pieces of
evidence. Curtis also was given a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for use of a firearm in a felony. He was found not guilty on a charge of the attempted second-degree murder of Jeff Sisler. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18, at which Circuit Court Judge Clifford Athey could uphold the jury's decision or opt for a lesser punishment.

Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Layton in his closing argument cited Occam's razor, a philosophical notion that the simplest explanation is most often correct.

He pointed out a chain of circumstantial evidence, including Curtis' positive gunshot residue test; a red blanket missing from Curtis' hotel room in which Funk's body was found; and a picture of Curtis holding the likely murder weapon. Another key piece of evidence was that Funk's blood was found on Curtis' pants and eyeglasses, according to DNA expert Mimi Smith.

"You have to look at how everything comes together," Layton said.

Defense attorney John Bell said in closing that truth does not come from Occam's razor, but from evidence that the prosecution did not provide.

Bell said lacking evidence included motivation for the crime, a gunshot was not heard, and no gun was discovered.

He added there was no proof of premeditation, and that if someone is planning a murder "you don't bring a blanket, you bring a shovel."

Defense attorney David Hensley said the commonwealth upheld its promise to present evidence similar to director Quinten Tarantino's plotlines, specifically "Pulp Fiction." The prosecution's witnesses were "a cast of seedy characters" and "by the time it was over, it didn't make any sense," he said.

Layton countered that "words matter, but evidence matters more."

Going back to the "Pulp Fiction" theme, Layton said "one scene at the beginning doesn't make sense, but seen as a whole, it does."

Layton then laid out several pieces of evidence on a railing before the jury, and illustrated how they all came together to connect what happened the night Funk was killed.

Bell questioned the reliability of two witnesses' testimony. "Carla Elliott is worried about Carla Elliott" and Jeff Sisler is a "drama-queen ninja," he said.

Elliott, Funk's girlfriend, testified to meeting Curtis while working at a local motel. Over a couple of months, Curtis bought her a car, helped with rent, and provided money for Christmas gifts.

When Curtis was kicked out of several motels, Elliott said he asked to move in with her and Funk. She said Curtis dumped his belongings on their porch the day Funk was killed.

Funk gave Curtis a ride in his van to retrieve the rest of his belongings, and to then take him to his sister's house in Shenandoah Farms, Elliot said.

After multiple attempts to reach both men by phone, Elliot said Curtis answered Funk's phone and said he was going to jail for the rest of his life.

Several police officers testified that a red comforter was missing from one bed in Curtis' motel room. Other findings in the room included Front Royal maps with ATMs and check deposit locations circled.

Curtis' now-deceased sister, Faye Curtis, called neighbor Jeff Sisler with the suspicion something had gone awry at her property. Sisler arrived to Funk's van in the driveway. Curtis eventually got behind the wheel, and tried to run him over, Sisler said.

Funk's body was discovered the next day underneath leaves and sticks about 30 yards away from where the van parked. Layton said that Curtis panicked when Sisler interrupted an attempt to get rid of the body.

A bullet fragment was found in Funk's head, along with a nearby capsule, but no gun was discovered.

Virginia Department of Forensics Sciences firearms examiner Julian J. Mason said the bullets matched that of .40-caliber Ruger, which John Harris testified to selling Curtis in 2014. It is the same gun Curtis held in a photograph taken off his cell phone.

The defense also questioned the reliability of Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail inmate Michael Turner's testimony.

Turner is awaiting trial on charges of grand larceny and burglary. He testified that Curtis recently confessed to killing Funk.

Turner became incarcerated in May when his wife revoked her signature from his bond, and "ran off with another man," he said

Curtis approached Turner to commiserate over the fact that "you can't trust women" and said he faced a similar situation with a wife while in federal prison, Turner said.

Hensley objected, approached the bench, and requested a mistrial because the jury was made aware of Curtis' previous incarceration. Athey overruled, and asked the jury to disregard the comment.

Turner then testified that Curtis said he was again in a similar situation, but said "he don't want to deal with me no more — so I shot him and wrapped him up in a blanket."

Hensley suggested that Turner was testifying to obtain a release from jail.

"I haven't even been given witness protection and a whole jail wanna kill me right now. Does that look like I was made an offer?" Turner said.

After the guilty verdict was announced, the defense called forensic psychologist Dr. Sara Boyd during the sentencing argument. Boyd evaluated Curtis twice to determine potential mental health issues. She painted a sad picture of his life, which included more than 30 years in prison.

Curtis was often victim of physical and sexual abuse, which is not uncommon for shorter inmates seen as effeminate by other prisoners, Boyd said. Those incidents left Curtis with post-traumatic stress disorder, Boyd said. He also may suffer from personality disorder.

Curtis often used the word "certainty" to describe life in jail, and said life outside moved too fast, according to Boyd.

Curtis always had difficulty maintaining relationships and jobs, and was concerned people were out to use, exploit or hurt him, Boyd said.

The prosecution during the sentencing argument called Funk's mother, Connie Clatterbuck.

Crying through the entirety of testimony, Clatterbuck said Funkís death wreaked havoc on the family and that has not been able to sleep and lost her job.

She described Funk as a "mama's boy" with a "big heart" who "would do anything for anyone." Although he was 42, she said "he was my baby."

Clatterbuck said she hoped God could forgive Curtis because she couldn't. She shared the same sentiment toward Carla Elliot for introducing Curtis to her son.

"I hope you have a lot of sleepless nights," Clatterbuck said to Curtis.

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