Evidentiary Hearing To Possibly Exonerate Bragg’s Murder Conviction Now in Session in Watauga

Published Tuesday, July 25, 2017 at 10:40 am

Editor’s Note: This hearing, which started on Monday, is currently ongoing in the Watauga County Board of Commissioners room this week. The following story was written earlier this month. 

By Jesse Wood

July 12, 2017. A three-judge panel will preside over an evidentiary hearing in the State v. Robert Charles “Bobby” Bragg case during the week of July 24 in the Watauga County Courthouse in Boone.

Bragg, who has maintained his innocence throughout, was convicted along with Kenneth Coffey of murdering Marvin ‘Coy’ Hartley on Dec. 8, 1994 in the first degree. Hartley was found dead in a mobile home in the Greenway Trailer Park in Boone.

In September of last year, the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission in a 6-2 vote agreed that there was “sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review and referred the case forward for a hearing before a three-judge panel.” See transcript from that hearing here. 

The three-judge panel is the final process in the state’s IIC case-progression chart.

For more information, see story from last September: 

One of Two Convicted With ’94 Murder in Boone One Step Away From Exoneration

By Jesse Wood

Sept. 7, 2016. One of the two people convicted with murdering Marvin “Coy” Hartley in the first degree in a mobile home in the Greenway Trailer Park in Boone is one step away from being exonerated by the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission (IIC).

From Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, the IIC held a hearing in the State v. Robert Charles “Bobby” Bragg and in a 6-2 vote found “that there was sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review and referred the case forward for a hearing before a three-judge panel,” according to a Sept. 6 release from the IIC. 

Bragg and Kenneth Coffey were tried and convicted of the Dec. 8, 1994 murder of Hartley. Coffey, the first of the two defendants tried in the crime, was convicted on Feb. 26, 1996, and at Bragg’s later trial, Coffey testified against Bragg, according to IIC Executive Director Lindsey Smith.

Smith stated that Coffey never applied to the commission.

While documents related to Bragg’s case are not yet public record until the IIC files them with the Clerk of Court in the next month or so, a N.C. Supreme Court decision pertaining to the State v. Coffey case sheds some light on what happened on Dec. 8, 1994. 

Hartley’s neighbor, Larry Grimes, testified that he and his wife lived next door to Hartley and would bring him leftover food nearly every day. At about 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 8, 1994, Grimes knocked on Hartley’s door but nobody answered.

Grimes opened the door and found Hartley face down and unresponsive. Grimes went back to his trailer and dialed 911. An EMT testified in Coffey’s case that “a large, massive amount of blood” was present underneath Hartley’s face. A medical examiner determined that the cause of death was blunt traumatic injury to the head.

Boone Police Department Randall Rasnak testified that he responded to a fight call at the Longview Motel and saw both Coffey and Bragg intoxicated. Rasnak searched both men and found a knife and an athletic sock that contained a chrome trailer-hitch ball in Bragg’s coat pocket.

Detective Shook testified that residents of the Greenway Trailer Park told him and several other officers that both Coffey and Bragg were observed in the area on the day of the murder.

Shook and another detective tracked down Coffey and interviewed him at the station for five hours.

“Defendant [Coffey] told police that he and Bragg had been at the victim’s trailer the day of the murder. Defendant further stated that Bragg had hit Hartley with a trailer-hitch ball in a sock and had taken Hartley’s billfold. After witnessing this, defendant testified that he ran from the trailer. On the basis of the statements made by defendant, Bragg was arrested on 10 December 1994 in Mountain City, Tenn. Subsequently, on Jan. 6, 1995, defendant was arrested for a probation violation. After being questioned for several hours concerning Hartley’s death, defendant was then also charged with the murder.”

In a polygraph, Coffey said that he met Bragg the afternoon of the murder:

“He told Detective Shook that upon returning home from the liquor store that afternoon, he met Bobby Bragg. Bragg planned to take Hartley’s money after getting him drunk, and defendant reluctantly agreed to go along with this plan. Upon entering the trailer, Hartley ordered Bragg out, and defendant proceeded to hit Hartley in the face twice. Bragg then also began hitting Hartley with the trailer ball. Hartley eventually fell to the floor, and the wallet fell out of his back pocket. Bragg took the wallet and attempted to give defendant some money from the wallet. He told defendant that he better not say anything or he would regret it. Defendant took the money and left.”

John Combs, an employee at the Boone ABC store, testified that he knew of both Coffee and Hartley:

“He testified that it was common for Hartley to visit the store once or twice daily, buying a pint of “Popov” vodka on each visit. On the day of the murder, defendant entered the store sometime in the evening and said that Coy Hartley had sent him. He then inquired as to what brand of liquor Hartley bought. Defendant purchased a pint of “Popov” vodka and then left the store.”

During the recent hearing where the IIC found “sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review” in Bragg’s case, IIC Executive Director Lindsey Smith presented the case to the Commissioners. 

The Commission considered testimonial and documentary evidence, including testimony by Commission Associate Director Sharon Stellato, Commission Staff Attorney Catherine Matoian, a DNA expert, and three lay witnesses, according to a release from the IIC. Here are related  affidavits.

The IIC referred the case to be heard before a three-judge panel. Chief Justice Mark Martin will appoint three superior court judges to hear the case in Watauga County. The three-judge panel is the final process in the state’s IIC case-progression chart.

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The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission is a state agency charged with investigating post-conviction claims of factual innocence. The agency was created by the General Assembly in 2006 and began operation in 2007. The Commission is the first and only of its kind in the country. Since 2007, the Commission has conducted investigations that have resulted in the exoneration of 10 individuals.

Almost 2,000 claims have been submitted to the agency. As an independent, neutral, fact-finding agency, the Commission has not only uncovered evidence of innocence, but has also confirmed guilt in numerous cases.

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