Thirty-four years later, wife testifies against husband in Georgia murder trial

Thirty-four years later, wife testifies against husband in Georgia murder trial

September 25th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

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.

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News, Pool/ Jay Thomas Burlison is wheeled into the courtroom in Dalton, Ga.. 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.

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News, Pool/ Jay Thomas Burlison is wheeled...

DALTON, Ga. — After she said her husband shot her four times, Mary Mealer and her daughters moved into a friend's house. They covered the windows with curtains and sheets. Mealer followed the girls to the bus stop and watched passing cars that looked like Jay Burlison's.

Sometimes, she answered the phone and heard no one on the other line. She worried what was going to happen next. Thirty-three years passed. She said she never heard from him.

"The first few months was hell," Mealer said. "I can tell you that. It was just awful; a bad way to live."

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.

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News, Pool/ Lawyers expect to make opening...

This spring, investigators with the Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office found Burlison, 75, living with his brothers in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. His name registered on a criminal database after hospital workers signed him up for Medicare. They arrested Burlison on July 2 for charges pending since November 1984: murder and two counts of aggravated assault.

Burlison's trial began in Whitfield County Superior Court on Tuesday. During cross examination, public defender Micah Gates questioned whether Mealer was actually the one who attacked her husband the night of the shooting.

Gates asked Mealer if she ever ground up glass and sneaked it into Burlison's food. She said no. It was not clear Tuesday where Gates was heading with that question. But he pivoted to another event, about two weeks before the shooting, when Mealer pointed a gun at her husband.

Mealer had already filed for divorce at that time and requested custody of her daughters. She also asked for a restraining order, telling a judge that Burlison had threatened to hurt her several times. On this particular day, in late October 1984, she went to Burlison's work at North Georgia Shippers to pick up the girls. They had already agreed on the exchange, she testified Tuesday.

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News, Pool/ Jay Thomas Burlison is helped to his seat in the courtroom. 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.

Matt Hamilton/Daily Citizen-News, Pool/ Jay Thomas Burlison is helped...

When she arrived, the girls weren't around. Burlison told her to pick them up in a room in the back of the building. She followed him, she testified, and Burlison pulled a gun on her. They wrestled. She grabbed the gun from him.

"I would have shot him," she testified, "but it was empty."

"You were trying to kill him?" Gates asked later in the testimony.

"Yeah," she said. "Because I knew that it was going to happen to me."

Instead, she testified that Burlison grabbed the gun back from her and beat her with it until she passed out. When she came to, she said she was back at their home on Wilson Road in Rocky Face, Georgia. She said he drugged her and boarded up the windows. When she didn't show up for work, her district manager called one of her emergency contacts, a neighbor who happened to be a state trooper.

The neighbor checked on her, then called for backup. When other officers arrived, they arrested Burlison. He bonded out. Mealer said Burlison kidnapped the children a couple of days later, but she came to the house and distracted Burlison while her neighbor helped the girls sneak away. In a hearing for the divorce, a judge granted Mealer custody of her daughters and ordered Burlison to stay away.

Meanwhile, Mealer began casually dating Ernest Griffin. He was a frequent customer at the convenience store. With her relationship over, she said she ate dinner and watched movies at Griffin's house a couple of times. Just before Midnight on Nov. 11, 1984, Griffin drove her to the convenience store. She said they went inside for a minute. When they walked back out, she saw Burlison park his car in front of theirs.

Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston, right, shows Mary Mealer evidence in the murder trial of Jay Thomas Burlison on Tuesday afternoon. Burlison was missing for 34 years, until law enforcement found him in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, this spring.

Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston, right,...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

She said Griffin opened his car door, but Burlison shot him through the head. (He was later pronounced dead at Hamilton Medical Center.)

Mealer ran into her own car. She said Burlison shot her in the chin. She pressed her head against the steering wheel, and Burlison allegedly shot three more times in the side. She then heard a click. He was out of bullets.

Mealer said she managed to run into the convenience store and tell the clerk to call 911. Burlison followed, pointed the gun at the clerk and pulled the trigger. Mealer was right: No bullet came out. But she said Burlison began to hit her in the head with the gun. She then watched him jump in his car and drive away.

After that, she didn't hear anything.

In his opening argument, District Attorney Bert Poston painted Burlison as a serial domestic abuser who beat Mealer whenever she disobeyed him. Her greatest sin? Filing papers to divorce him and leave him behind. He said there's no question Burlison tried to kill Mealer that night.

"I expect it, in fact, not to be seriously contested," Poston told the jury.

Gates, meanwhile, said in his opening statement that the state's evidence is weak 34 years after the fact. He said all of the physical evidence has vanished, though that fact was not fleshed out Tuesday. Gates also said the main witnesses in the case are not credible.

He argued that Mealer wanted to kill Burlison. He also said the clerk, Ronald Lee Harris, can't be trusted. A judge in Ohio sentenced him to life in prison in 1996 after convictions for rape and aggravated felonious sexual penetration of an underage victim.

"Don't buy the lie the state is trying to sell you with an attempted murderer and a child rapist," Gates told the jury.

Jeff Silvers, an investigator with Poston's office, testified Tuesday about an interview he did with Burlison after his arrest in July. He said Burlison claimed to have fled to Virginia and lived there for about three decades. He married another woman. They made about $30,000-$40,000 in cash every year working at flea markets. Burlison's wife died about two years ago. Burlison became sick with multiple afflictions, including COPD. He moved back to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, to live with family.

Also on Tuesday, employees of the sheriff's office and district attorney's office testified that Burlison had not shown up on criminal databases for decades. The agencies checked driver's license databases in all 50 states for decades as well. Nothing ever showed up.

"He just literally fell off the face of the Earth," Poston said.

The district attorney expects to call his final witness Wednesday morning. He believes he will rest his case by noon, when Gates will be able to call witnesses.

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


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