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Guilty verdict delivered

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Chapel Hill man was found guilty as charged Monday at the end of a two and a half day trial.

Michael Dean Marlin, 23, was charged with aggravated robbery, robbery, aggravated assault, assault, and three counts of especially aggravated burglary, following a home invasion in December 2009.

The jury of eight men and four women deliberated 40 minutes before returning their guilty verdict after lunch on Monday.

Circuit Court Judge Robert Crigler set Marlin's sentencing hearing for Dec. 9.

Marlin's co-defendants, Laura and Travis Lankford, are scheduled for trial in the near future.

"When I talk about this being a bad case -- it is," Assistant District Attorney Eddie Barnard said during opening arguments. "This is serious stuff."

Barnard told the jury he would prove that Marlin and Travis Lankford invaded Lones Allen Butler's home at 5462 Creekview Road near the Maury County line on the night of Dec. 13. Lankford grappled with Leigh Ann Taylor, Butler's girlfriend, while Marlin beat up Butler. The two men left with $1,000 cash, some knives and lighters, and some prescription drugs.

"There are two sides to every story," defense attorney Bill Haywood countered. "You've got to hear the rest of the story sometimes. Travis and Laura are trying to pin everything on my client."

While not denying that Butler suffered horrible injuries, Haywood said Marlin only hit Butler once, in self-defense, after Butler had taken a swing at him first. According to Haywood, Marlin shoved Butler and he hit his head, then fell forward and hit it again on the bathroom commode.

"We believe the facts will show that Butler and Taylor are dope dealers, selling to Travis Lankford," Haywood said during opening arguments. "Travis felt like he got ripped off. The end result was horrible, but a man has a right to defend himself."

Taylor was the first witness for the prosecution, and, in response to Barnard's questioning, started with a strong denial that the couple was selling drugs at the house, or anywhere else.

Taylor told the jury there had already been a burglary earlier that Sunday, in which the $5,600 hidden in three places in the house had been taken, along with "all Allen's meds." Butler is retired on disability from work on the railroad and was prescribed a considerable amount of painkillers and muscle relaxants. The couple had been saving for three years, Taylor said, intending to go on a cruise once they had $10,000.

Taylor described how they were sitting in the living room that night when she saw the taillights of a car backing down the driveway.

She went out on the screened porch and asked, "Who's there?" and got the answer, "It's me, Laura." Laura Lankford was a friend of Taylor and Taylor's daughter, but Taylor reported that she told Travis Lankford he was not welcome at her house, after a quarrel a few months before.

Taylor asked if Travis was with her, and Laura Lankford said, "No," so Taylor invited her to come in.

"Did you know anybody else was out there?" asked Barnard.

"No."

"Did you invite anybody else in?"

"No, just Laura."

In fact, Laura Lankford never did come in. Travis Lankford rushed through the door. Taylor testified he grabbed her, demanding, "Where's more? I want more pills!" They struggled into the laundry room where some old prescription medicines were, and Taylor caught a glimpse of Marlin searching Butler's bedroom. Then Marlin said, "I've got it. Let's go," Travis Lankford let go of Taylor, and both men dashed out of the house.

Taylor went looking for Butler and found him lying unconscious in a pool of blood in the bathroom, surrounded by broken glass.

"He's suffering very badly from his injuries," Taylor told the jury at the end of the trial's first day.

The second day opened with testimony from Vanderbilt trauma surgeon Dr. Oliver Gunter, who treated Butler after he was taken by helicopter ambulance to the hospital.

"He could have died from his injuries," Gunter said, referring to a two-inch stack of medical records. The injuries included a fractured skull, broken jaw, broken ribs, and multiple lacerations. While not ruling out a fall as the cause of the injuries, Gunter said they had to have been caused by more than one blow, and that a "significant amount of force" was involved. Butler spent 26 days at Vanderbilt, 10 of those in a coma.

Butler was called as a witness, but he has memory loss and does not know anything about the night that changed his life forever. He is now unable to drive a car, and has to live with his brother in Nashville. He said in addition to the pain he was in before, now his arm is "all messed up."

When Barnard asked Butler what he would wish for if he could have three wishes, Butler said he would like to "go back home," be pain free, and be able to "re-arrange that day."

His younger brother, Sherman, wept on the witness stand as he told the jury how he had to take care of Allen. Sherman Butler took photos of Allen in hospital that were admitted as evidence of his injuries.

"They are pretty gory," Haywood said, arguing that the pictures might prejudice the jury against his client.

"We have to prove serious bodily injury," Barnard insisted.

"What probative value do these pictures have except for shocking the jury?" asked Haywood.

"You both have a point," Crigler conceded. Eventually, eight photographs were admitted as evidence.

Marshall County Sheriff's deputies Tony Nichols and Matt Owens, who were the first lawmen on the scene, also testified, as did Detective Keith Jolley, who led the investigation.

Laura Lankford's brothers -- Steven Gentry and Jerry Lee Gentry Jr. -- and her mother, Patricia Beard, were also witnesses.

The final witness was Kelly Harris, 26, who said she knew Marlin from Duck River Racetrack. Harris said she went to Marlin's place a few days after Dec. 13 and reported he was "jumpy."

Harris said she asked Marlin, "What have you done now?" and he told her, "I beat this guy up and he's in Vanderbilt and they don't know if he's going to make it."

Marlin turned himself in on Dec. 17, and made two statements to Jolley. In the second one, he wrote he was going with Travis to "settle a score," but did not know where he was going.

"He admitted that with the use of violence they went in there and stole?" Barnard asked the detective.

"Yes," Jolley replied.

In closing arguments, Barnard and Haywood both urged the jury to look at the facts and the law, with Haywood contending that the state had not proved its case because no one could testify they saw Marlin hitting Butler, and there was no direct link between Marlin and items stolen from the house. The jury, however, saw it Barnard's way, rapidly deciding the evidence was sufficient for a conviction on all counts.