Jury finds McGraw guilty

Published 11:48 am Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Travis McGraw was found guilty of first-degree murder on Wednesday, June 4, around 3:45 p.m. A jury of twelve, unanimously found him guilty of murder and McGraw was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The following is closing arguments from Tuesday’s trial:
After hearing testimony for seven days, the fate of Travis Lee McGraw, 47, accused of killing his wife, Vanessa Mintz was in the hands of a jury of twelve Polk County residents beginning Tuesday afternoon when they began deliberations at 3:40 p.m.
Testimony ended Tuesday, June 3 and the jury heard the final arguments from both the defense attorney and state prosecutor, who each reviewed their opinions of what the evidence proved.
Senior assistant district attorney Alex Bass got the last word in closing arguments and told the story of how and why the state thinks McGraw murdered Mintz with two shotgun blasts at the Saluda Mountain Lodge on Feb. 19, 2011.
Bass said McGraw wants the jury to believe that he dropped the spent shotgun shell on the floor where Mintz’ body was found before she was murdered while he was changing clothes in the room. Bass said Mintz kept the manager’s quarters of the lodge “neat as a pin.” He said everything in the bedroom was in order, even the bathroom. It wasn’t ransacked like a robbery, Bass said.
Bass asked the jury to think about it. Here is a woman who’d taken off her clothes to go to bed, takes off her shoes and right there, inches from her shoes, is a shotgun shell on the floor, Bass said. Wouldn’t she have picked it up, he asked.
“She wouldn’t have left that shotgun shell there because it wasn’t there,” Bass whispered, leaning in towards the jurors. “It didn’t fall out of his pocket. It came out of that shotgun when he killed her.”
Those were the last words the jurors heard from attorneys before exiting to deliberate the verdict.
The defense
McGraw’s attorney Tony Dalton spoke to the jury about the seriousness of their decision and asked them to do what they promised to do…give McGraw a fair trial. Dalton asked jurors to base their decision on the law, not whether or not they like his client. Dalton said the jury’s decision is whether or not McGraw gets to go home to his family and participate in a life with his children.
He spoke of the burden of proof being on the state, saying that McGraw has the presumption of innocence. The state’s evidence, according to Dalton, tended to show where Mintz died and how she died, but not who or how many people shot her.
Dalton said if he were to title his closing arguments it would be, “rush to judgement.”
Dalton said McGraw has no criminal history and has led a life as a firefighter, EMT, law enforcement officer and in the U.S. Air Force. McGraw was within a month of retiring from the Air Force, Dalton said, having served 19 years, 11 months and 10 days before his arrest. As far as divorce, Dalton said, McGraw has been through it before so he’s familiar with it.
“Not being a faithful husband doesn’t mean you are a murderer,” said Dalton.
Dalton also said there has been no evidence of domestic violence at all or of McGraw ever being violent with anybody.
“It’s an unusual case,” Dalton said. “The most serious event of his life.”
Dalton said the rush to judgment began with N.C. State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agent Shannon Ashe who searched McGraw’s truck and that was the only vehicle searched in the case.
Dalton also asked the jury if McGraw “could have been more cooperative?”
Dalton said McGraw is a man trained in law enforcement.
“If you’d done this heinous crime, wouldn’t the shotgun disappear?” Dalton asked.
He said the jury has heard testimony about the crime scene at the lodge, referring to it as a lonely place, “eerie,” he said.
“I submit to you a perfect place for a robbery, but in the rush to judgment, that was ignored,” Dalton said.
Dalton also said he thinks Sandra Watkins’ testimony was interesting in that she testified two men tried to get into her car, which was reported to law enforcement at 9:33 p.m. the night of the murder and no follow-ups were done.
“Could they have gone to the Saluda Mountain Lodge and robbed it and killed her?” Dalton asked.
Dalton said a number of people testified the cash drawer at the lodge was open and an identifiable fingerprint was found. The expert testified he only compared the print to Mrs. Mintz and Mr. McGraw, Dalton said. Why not do an elimination screen, he asked, or send the print to the state database for a possible match.
“Rush to judgment…” Dalton said. “Mind already made up.”
Dalton said in a homicide case, shouldn’t the state try.
“With the stakes this high, wouldn’t you go the extra mile?” Dalton asked.
Dalton also refuted earlier testimony that McGraw was not at a shooting range near the Asheville airport the morning of the murder according to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) testimony saying calls made from McGraw’s phone that morning hit towers in downtown Hendersonville, not towers near the airport. Dalton said there was a window with no activity on McGraw’s cell phone from 9:09 a.m. until 10:15 a.m., which is plenty of time for McGraw to have been at the property practicing shooting.
“Therefore, there is nothing that contradicts McGraw’s testimony about going shooting that day,” Dalton said.
Dalton said it’s a reasonable explanation that the shell ended up on the floor after McGraw went shooting earlier and testified about picking up “all his brass.”
Dalton also said the tool mark evidence matching McGraw’s Mossberg 500, one of the most popular shotguns on the market, with the shell found at the crime scene was the agent’s subjective opinion.
Going to the night of the murder, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011, Dalton said there was no arguing between McGraw and Mintz, saying when McGraw left he and Mintz “exchanged pleasantries.”
He also questioned Heidi Latham’s testimony, a friend of Mintz’ staying at the lodge that night, who said she was awoken by a noise, presumably gunshots, and said the two shots were more than a minute apart.
Dalton said from the testimony, common sense would tell you that if over a minute had passed between shots there would be screaming and Mintz would be trying to get away.
Dalton also said Latham couldn’t identify McGraw’s very distinctive truck.
Dalton said there were too many questions left in the case and the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt his client is guilty.
“Hold the state to their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Dalton said. “Find this man not guilty.”
The prosecution
Bass began his closing arguments by saying Mintz was a pillar of the community, an asset to her church, her faith and her family. Bass said Mintz is dead and will not be able to hold her grandchildren, not attend weddings or funerals.
Bass first talked about motive in the case. Bass said through testimony, it was learned McGraw was first married to an older woman, who was a nurse and later a nurse practitioner. He chose to cheat with a younger woman, Bass said, and that was his first step in a pattern.
“Lo and behold, he met Vanessa Mintz,” Bass said.
Mintz was an older woman, a pillar of the community and according to her daughter, Jessica Freeman, McGraw “swept her off her feet and swept the family off their feet.”
Then he followed that pattern, Bass said. He met a young woman, speaking of Mary Beth Fisher.
“And the defendant swept her off her feet,” said Bass.
Bass said McGraw didn’t murder his first wife because she was the mother of his children and his children would have been devastated but the situation with Mintz was different. Bass said when McGraw went off to Air Force training, something happened. Fisher found out he was married and when he came back he “wooed” her even harder, Bass told jurors, saying he brought Fisher presents that he didn’t bring to his wife.
Mintz wasn’t oblivious, though, Bass said. Mintz confided in her friend Latham, fearing that McGraw was cheating again, as he had about a year prior.
Bass said McGraw was in love with Fisher, speaking of Fisher’s testimony that McGraw was crying in her yard when she asked him to leave. Bass spoke of love letters McGraw sent to Fisher from prison, one being five pages of  “I love you.”
And then Fisher gave McGraw an ultimatum, Bass said. Bass said on Thursday, the day before Mintz was murdered, Fisher gave McGraw until Sunday to decide who he wanted to be with.
Bass said this time thinking about leaving his wife was different. When he moved out separating from his first wife, he had to live with his mother.
Bass asked the jury if they thought if he left Mintz he could still buy Starbucks and bring presents to Fisher and her son without Mintz’ income. What would be the advantages of killing his wife, Bass asked.
There’s a three-bedroom residence, there’s a $100,000 life insurance policy, Bass said, so McGraw “could live happily ever after. “
“The defendant had every reason in the world to act differently this time,” Bass said.
Then Bass began talking about McGraw’s law enforcement, firefighting and military training. He said McGraw knew how to stage a crime scene. Knew, or thought he knew, that a shotgun shell with pellets was harder to trace than a slug or other type of gun.
“But he wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was,” Bass said.
Many law enforcement officers don’t know a firing pin match can be done on a shotgun shell, Bass told jurors.
Bass said the jury has heard testimony of McGraw’s lies. How he apologized in text messages for lying to Fisher and then, Bass said, McGraw told the tale of going to the property near the airport to shoot the shotgun.
Bass then detailed every move he thought McGraw made the night of the murder. He said McGraw waited for his son to go to sleep, snuck out and rolled his truck to the bottom of the driveway and started it. Bass said McGraw parked in the same spot at the lodge, opened the door to the lodge and eased in. He saw Mintz in the bed, took his shotgun and shot her.
Bass explained that the gap in Latham’s testimony regarding there being a minute between shots could have been because after the first shot, which was done in the dark bedroom of the lodge, the defendant had to stage the lodge to look like a robbery. He went and opened the cash drawer, Bass said, maybe he heard a moan from Mintz and realized he hadn’t killed her with the first shot, so he “gives her the kill shot. And Vanessa Mintz died.”
Bass also said even though McGraw thought he staged the scene like a robbery, nobody took the jewelry that was right there on the shelf, calling it a “slip up.”
“Just like the slip up with the shell,” Bass said.
And Latham said she woke up, but didn’t leave for a while. Bass said, here’s a problem for McGraw because he sees a light on.
“What are they going to say,” Bass said McGraw was likely thinking. “I saw him leave.”
So McGraw stays in the office until he sees Latham leave the lodge and then he goes back home.
Bass said after McGraw goes to the lodge there were reports he was desperate to get into the lodge.
“Maybe he was desperate to get in because he realized when he got home he forgot to get the shell,” Bass told jurors.
Bass said now, of course, the defendant has a story about the shotgun shell in the floor. But the story didn’t come out until he was in the courtroom. McGraw testified he told officers about going shooting earlier that day.
“No he didn’t,” Bass said.
McGraw testified that he told officers about the firing pin in the gun.
“No he didn’t,” said Bass.
The problem with the shooting story, Bass said, was he didn’t think about the cell phone towers. Bass also said during the time of no calls, someone would be hard pressed to get from the south side of Hendersonville to the shooting range near the Asheville airport, do some shooting and get back to the south side of Hendersonville.
“This case is a circumstantial case,” Bass said. “No one saw him do it. What we have is a complete set of circumstances surrounding that night.”
Bass said McGraw’s shotgun is the one that fired the shell and the wadding found in Mintz is what is found in that type of shell as well as a shell found in McGraw’s truck.
In speaking of reasonable doubt, Bass said, “nothing is sure beyond all doubt. I suppose space aliens could have come down and killed Vanessa Mintz.”
Reasonably, Bass said, the defendant did it.
“So it’s up to you to decide the credibility,” Bass told the jury.
Bass also discussed whether the case is first-degree or second-degree murder.
“This case the defendant did and he planned it out,” Bass said, adding that McGraw armed himself with a shotgun and fired not one shot, but two.
“No way it was second-degree because it was premeditated and it was deliberate,” said Bass.

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