The Nebo man convicted in the 2015 shooting death of Christopher Wayne English was sentenced in McDowell County Superior Court to life in prison Wednesday.
On Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. after five-and a-half hours of deliberation, a jury found 34-year-old Jerry Ryan Echols of Nebo guilty of first-degree murder, possession of a firearm by a felon, fleeing to elude arrest and possession of marijuana. During sentencing on Wednesday morning, Echols was sentenced to life without parole for the murder charge.
Defense attorney Sam Snead subsequently filed a notice of appeal.
“I’ve represented Mr. Echols for almost four years,” said Snead during the sentencing, “and was appointed to him shortly after his murder charge…the young man that I’ve dealt with has been a real pleasure. I’ve enjoyed working with him. It’s a tragedy. That’s where I think the real heart of this issue is, that it’s a tragedy on both sides: one loss of life and the other a loss of liberty. That’s the best way to characterize it in my eyes.”
In a trial that took many twists and turns as it unfolded, the death of Christopher English was analyzed meticulously by prosecution and the defense. Assistant District Attorney Kent Brown maintained that after midnight on June 17, 2015, Echols and his girlfriend Shirley “Cricket” Hollifield left their home on Wheeler Drive to look for the man who had approached her in her car at their driveway earlier that night and frightened her. When Echols found the suspected person, later identified as English, and confronted him at the intersection of Pinnacle Heights Drive and Pinnacle Church Road, a verbal and physical altercation ensued that resulted in Echols pulling out a .380 handgun and shooting English, killing him.
Echols was arrested two days later following a high-speed pursuit by state and local authorities, where the weapon in question, articles of clothing and trace amounts of marijuana were found in the vehicle.
During the trial, the state argued that Echols and Hollifield had prior altercations with English in the past either directly or indirectly – with allegations presented by Hollifield on record that English had try to lure her child into the woods with candy and had confronted Echols two days earlier in the night – that might have fueled his intentions to shoot the victim.
The defense, however, claimed that English’s documented bizarre and drug addled behavior prior to and on the day of his murder – in which witnesses testified that he had smoked meth within the hour of the shooting (of which toxicology reports confirmed meth and amphetamines in his system at the time of his death), would growl and get on all fours like a dog, had pulled a street sign out of the ground and left it in a friend’s yard, had walked around with a non-descript radio device he claimed would help the Sheriff’s Office, and barged into a neighbor’s home and made violent and sexually based comments – had made him unable to rationally talk to Echols during their confrontation, leaving the defendant to shoot him in self-defense as the altercation became physical.
Following the sentencing, members of the English and Echols family were asked to reflect on the jury’s decision, both of whom began to swell with tears as they offered comments.
“All I can say is this has brought closure to us, to his family, Chris’ family,” said Betty English, the adopted mother of Christopher English, “and we waited four years for it to happen. And I’m glad of the outcome. I hate that his (Echols) mother has to suffer, but he needs to pay for what he did.”
“I don’t think he should’ve got first-degree murder, period,” said Pamela Echols, Ryan Echols’ mother, who had been in attendance throughout the entire trial. “I’ve stood by him for four years. He’s my whole heart. He’s my world. I’m devastated. I’m upset, he’s upset. We’ll never be a family again. It’s just real sad. Saddest thing I’ve ever been through my whole entire life.”
A press release from the District Attorney’s office recognized investigators from the McDowell County Sheriff’s Office and State Bureau of Investigation – including Lt. Burlin Ballew (who had discovered English’s body during an unrelated welfare check), Detective Billie Brown, Capt. Shanon Smith, retired Sheriff Dudley Greene, current Sheriff (then-Chief Deputy) Ricky Buchanan and SBI Agents Chris Brenzel and (now McDowell Detective) Van Williams -- for their involvement.
“The investigation was truly an entire agency effort,” said District Attorney Ted Bell in the statement, “and their extremely thorough approach ensured that Echols did not get away with murder.”