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Chris Whitfield/Daily Citizen-News / Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office Investigator Glenn Swinney, left, hugs Mary Mealer after a jury in Whitfield County Superior Court returns a verdict of guilty on a voluntary manslaughter charge against Jay Thomas Burlison on Thursday morning. Mealer testified that she saw Burlison, her ex husband, murder Ernest Griffin in November 1984 before Burlison disappeared for 34 years.

Updated at 5:35 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, with more information.

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Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News, Pool/ Lawyers expect to make opening arguments in the murder trial of Jay Thomas Burlison listens during is trial for murder. Burlison is accused of killing a man in a Rocky Face, Georgia, convenience store in 1984. According to police, Burlison drove away from the store after the shooting and didn turn up until earlier this year, when he applied for Social Security benefits in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.

DALTON, Ga. — For 12,372 days, Mary Mealer wondered what would become of her former husband, the man who disappeared after shooting her four times and killing her boyfriend. On Day 12,373, Mealer got her answer.

A jury in Whitfield County Superior Court convicted Jay Thomas Burlison of voluntary manslaughter and two counts of aggravated assault on Thursday morning, after about six hours of deliberation. Burlison has been the lead suspect in the case since immediately after the shooting on Nov. 11, 1984. But he remained at large until this spring, when federal government workers found him after he signed up for Social Security benefits.

"It's been stressful," Mealer said. "You can't rest for nothing. It's been a long week."

During the trial, Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston laid out the timeline that supposedly led to the shooting. After 11 years of marriage, Mealer filed for divorce in October 1984. She told a judge that Burlison was physically abusive. Meanwhile, she began to date Ernest Griffin, a frequent customer at the Golden Gallon convenience store that she managed.

Days after a judge granted Mealer temporary custody of her daughters, she testified, Burlison showed up at the store. She said he pulled out a gun and shot Griffin through the head. He then shot her once in the chin and three times on the left side of her body. He drove away and disappeared.

Since then, Mealer feared he would return to kill her. She kept the curtains covered over the windows and followed her daughters to the school bus. The police put a recorder on her phone, in case he ever called with a threat.

After his arrest this year, Burlison, 75, appeared skinny and used a wheelchair. He suffers from COPD and needs an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

While he waited for the jury's verdict, he told a bailiff in court, "It really don't make much difference to me. Every day life is over. I'm confined, whether it's in a house or in jail. I can't even get my toenail trimmed."

Still, Mealer worried that a jury would acquit him. She believed Burlison could still attack her.

"He's old," she said, "but he's playing the system. He's not as bad off as they're saying he is."

Burlison's courtroom strategy was the hardest part of the case for her. Public Defender Micah Gates questioned Mealer's character. Burlison testified that she cheated on him. His half brother said he had an affair with Mealer decades ago, too. (She was not married to Burlison at the time.)

Burlison also testified that Mealer once mixed ground-up glass into food, hoping to kill him.

"I've never tried to murder no one in my life," Mealer said. "I've always been a pretty decent person. When they get up there and say things you know aren't true, it's hard to keep your cool."

Superior Court Judge Scott Minter will sentence Burlison on Tuesday at 2 p.m. He originally faced a murder charge that would have carried a punishment of life in prison. Instead, the jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter, meaning Burlison acted on the emotions of his divorce rather than coldly plotting out Griffin's death. The charge carries a sentence of 1-20 years in prison, as do the two counts of aggravated assault.

Ernest Griffin's son, Eric Griffin, said Burlison almost certainly will die in prison. He said he had found peace over his father's death years ago, figuring there was nothing he could do about it. After the verdict Thursday, he said the trial was important for the concept of justice. But for him, the victory was only theoretical.

"It still don't change nothing," he said. "It don't bring my daddy back."

On Wednesday, Burlison testified that he wasn't the one who actually shot Mealer and Ernest Griffin. He said he went to the convenience store that night to say goodbye to Mealer. He said he already planned to get out of town because of the divorce. When he arrived, an unknown man opened fire. He said the man was acting on Mealer's commands.

He said he escaped and drove to Virginia, where he lived until about a year ago.

"I was about to laugh," Eric Griffin said. "I seen a desperate man, reaching for anything. You're backed in a corner, you've got to say something. Because you're not going to tell the truth. He just talked stupid. He tried to make somebody else appear, shooting at him. But then when he got away, they just all of a sudden decided to shoot Mary and my daddy."

Burlison testified that he didn't know he was wanted by the police until earlier this year. But Poston told the jury during his closing argument Wednesday that Burlison intentionally lived off the grid. He didn't get a job that caused him to provide his Social Security number, instead buying and trading at flea markets. He didn't register a vehicle or apply for a driver's license.

Glenn Swinney, who first investigated the case as a Whitfield County Sheriff's Office detective in 1984, has searched for Burlison for decades. After he joined the district attorney's office in February 1991, he kept Burlison's file on his desk.

Swinney plugged his name into online searches ranging from criminal databases to ancestry.com. He wondered if Burlison fled the country. This is one of only two Whitfield County cases from that era that he said remained unsolved, the other being an unidentified man found in a lake with two bullets in his stomach.

Earlier this year, Swinney said, he was leaving Walmart when he ran into an old detective at the sheriff's office. The detective told him the department had just received a call, with a lead on where to find Burlison.

"I thought I was going to go to my grave and retire and everything without getting him caught," Swinney said Thursday. "The Lord answered my prayers, and the jury did the right thing."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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