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Massengill murder case stuck in court hearings

On a cold mid-February evening, Aaron Massengill got into his black Nissan pickup and drove off into the night, never to return home. The massive manhunt that resulted netted the body of the 28 year old county native found several days later in a ditch along Ferguson Ridge Road.

Massengill was the victim of a fatal gunshot, his body covered in cuts and bruises.

An estimated 800 miles of county roadway had been combed as the public joined forces with law enforcement to find Aaron.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation unearthed enough evidence to bring three suspects before the Claiborne Grand Jury. True bills were returned on Courtney Gilpin, Patrick Andrew Smith and Jimmy Lee Riffe – each suspect charged with first degree murder, aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit murder.

A preliminary hearing in March brought to light some of the circumstances leading up to the murder, as told by alleged witnesses. The case was bound over for trial.

It has since crawled through the legal system – not unlike most cases of this type. Status hearings were conducted. One hearing was called to consider a request by Smith to have his $1M bail reduced since he says he had not “planned the robbery” nor “pulled the trigger.”

The judge denied his request.

Family and friends were back in court on Aug.9 hoping for a trial date. None was forthcoming, however. The judge did circle Nov. 8 for another status hearing which could net the actual trial date as well as the outcomes of two motions brought by Smith.

His attorney has asked that Smith’s original statement be dismissed on the technicality that his Miranda rights were violated. Smith also wants his case to be severed from the other two defendants.

Sharon Massengill, Aaron’s mother, posted some thoughts to Facebook about the latest hearing.

“I have expressed in the past how painful it is that our judicial system seems to work so slowly. There isn’t a priority for the victims or the family of victims. No respect of time or grief. On this side of the fence it appears all liberties and rights are for the criminal element. It becomes more frustrating daily, once inside this system, seeing up close and personal the “justice” we assume is applied daily is not. I have people who reach out to me, who share their stories of seeking justice in similar circumstances. It is heartbreaking when you hear over and over that these people wait 3-5 years just to get to trial,” reads the post, in part.

Sharon ended her initial post by inviting others to express their thoughts.

Pat Woodward says she feels that the judicial system needs a complete overhaul.

“(It) seems as though everything helps the criminal. Someone gets the death penalty may take 20 years before it is carried out. Prayers that you don’t have to wait years for justice.”

Mandy Keck said in her post that she thinks the system fails by appointing lawyers free of charge to murderers.

“When they commit such demonic murders as this, they should have to figure out a way to pay for a lawyer. It’s not our problem. State lawyers for the victims should be free when there is a murder involved. I also do not believe that any of these three should be granted the ability to even ask for any kind of accommodation for themselves They gave up that right when Aaron had to give up his life. You do the crime you pay the time and it will never be enough.”

Marla Buckner, who is the mother of a murder victim, said she had to wait over a year to get a trial date.

“…right before the date, he pleaded guilty and I agreed to a sentence….I went to a court date almost every month. They would reset, so many for evidence. Then he would fire his lawyer just when I would think we were close. It was so exhausting and discouraging. Then, finally they assigned Phil Morton to my case and he really put a stop to Horner’s nonsense and once he saw he wasn’t going to get away with it and I wasn’t going to stop pushing, he agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder. My son had been gone almost 18 months at that point,” said Buckner, in her two posts.

Massengill says the court is still waiting for evidence to be released from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

“I believe we are too soft on the worst crimes and too hard on some of the lesser. There just has to be a better, more expedient process to move this stuff along. Could you imagine actually being innocent and sitting in jail for a few years to prove it? And, like us knowing someone is guilty and waiting for justice? We have too many resources in this country to continue down this path,” said Massengill.