Family members of Melissa Huntley Motz got reassurance on something they've known since their daughter's shooting death nine years ago inside a car at a Rock Hill apartment complex - that she didn't kill herself.
The six-member coroner's jury who heard testimony and questioned law enforcement, forensics experts and other witnesses in a two-day inquest unanimously determined Melissa Motz's Feb. 16, 2001, death occurred at the hands of her husband, James "Jimmy" Motz, but it was accidental, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast said.
"This means the manner of death on her death certificate will be listed as a homicide," Gast said. "By statute, death at the hands of another is a homicide. The jurors didn't feel this was an intentional act, rather a heat-of-passion type of crime."
Gast launched the inquest after Melissa Motz's family asked her to review the case to determine whether she killed herself or if her husband Jimmy Motz shot her inside his Ford Thunderbird.
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"Her husband, Jimmy Motz, claimed she shot herself after an argument and a night of drinking and drug use."
Then-Solicitor Tommy Pope and current 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett and an outside solicitor have previously declined to prosecute the case based on the evidence available.
Melissa Motz's parents, Larry and Patsy Huntley, said they have known for almost 10 years their daughter didn't kill herself.
"We've wanted him (Jimmy Motz) to tell the truth," Patsy Huntley said. "We appreciate the jury and their decision. We accept that whatever happens now, it's in God's hands. It's out of our control."
Larry Huntley said he saw the inquest as justice for his daughter, and he won't be disappointed if the case isn't prosecuted.
"If you look back at testimony, there was some fairly damning testimony, I thought. I just think if I were a prosecutor, I think I could make a good case," Huntley said. "I think Melissa would appreciate what we've done."
He also pointed out the proceeding could have been avoided had the case been brought to a grand jury for review in 2001.
Doug McKown, the coroner at the time said Melissa Motz's wounds were consistent with a self-inflicted gunshot. He ruled the manner of death on her death certificate as "could not be determined."
"Accidental homicide is not an official forensics ruling," he said by phone Tuesday. "I hope the Huntleys' have closure and everyone can get on with their lives. As far as the public is concerned, I think this muddies the water a little more."
McKown said he admired Gast for going through with the inquest in search of answers.
Gast urged officials at the State Law Enforcement Division and elsewhere to re-review the case and brought new evidence and testimony to the inquest, which was like a trial, except no attorneys could speak and jurors can ask questions directly of the witnesses.
Evidence was presented at this hearing that wouldn't be allowed in a criminal proceeding. The jurors decided manner of death from five options: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined. They deliberated less than two hours.
Gast said it's not clear what will happen next. No warrant for Jimmy Motz's arrest will be issued at this time, but she said a warrant would have been drawn up had the jury said they believed the death was an intentional killing. The case could be reviewed by a solicitor or the state Attorney General's Office, Gast said.
Jurors weighed the testimony of more than 20 witnesses, crime scene photos, a deposition from Jimmy Motz given in 2005 and 911 calls. Jimmy Motz didn't attend the inquest because of a medical condition. He was represented by attorney Jim Boyd. Gast said that disappointed her, as Jimmy Motz had previously agreed to attend.
While several witnesses said they believed Jimmy Motz could have killed his wife of two months, most said there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute that claim.
Forensics pathologist testifies
One expert, a forensics pathologist from the University of Missouri, said during the second day of testimony after reviewing the case he believes she was murdered.
Dr. Michael Panella, a leading medical examiner who reviewed this case at the urging of Gast, said after examining all the evidence available believes Melissa Motz was murdered.
"In my estimation from the evidence before me, I'd rule it a homicide," he said.
The professor and "neutral party" said he examined witness accounts, including a man outside smoking who didn't hear the gun go off. That witness, Chris Campbell, also testified Tuesday.
Campbell said he was outside of his Quail Creek apartment the night of the shooting when he saw the Motzes' car pull up. He testified to seeing Jimmy Motz get out of the car, stand on the sidewalk as if he was looking through the windshield of the car and then return to the driver side and lean in.
When he heard Jimmy Motz scream and yell, Campbell said he ran inside and called 911. While on the phone, he said he heard what sounded like a gunshot.
"I went back outside with my phone, and I saw the shots being fired into the air in the center of the parking lot," Campbell said.
He said he only heard gunshots at that point, those multiple shots being fired together, but not while he was outside.
Panella, who holds degrees in medicine, law and cellular and molecular biology and is board certified in anatomic, clinical and forensic pathology, also cited presumptive blood on the back of Jimmy Motz's shirt he was wearing that night as evidence he was inside the car at the time of the shooting.
A blood blister on Melissa Motz's left hand, the only hand that tested positive for gunshot residue, also was very important in Panella's decision, he said.
"That's not the hand that fired the weapon, in my opinion," he said. "Her right hand, the hand that would have fired the gun was negative for gunshot residue. ... When I look at everything all together, I really believe that negative gunshot swab on Mrs. Motz's right hand is legit. That she didn't fire the gun."
Former wife's statement
Panella factored Jimmy Motz's history of domestic violence and his former wife. Sandy Motz. telling police in 2001 that her former husband used to hold a gun under her chin while they fought into his decision.
A Rock Hill Police officer read a statement Sandy Motz gave after the shooting about her former husband who started abusing her in 1980.
"When he'd point the gun at me, he'd tell me he ought to kill my (expletive)," the officer read from her statement. "... He'd give me a gun and tell me kill myself."
SLED Officer Bryan Jones, who specializes in polygraph tests, said he and another agent who reviewed the case this year found deception, or that Jimmy Motz was lying, in the lie detector test he took in 2001.
York County Sheriff's Lt. Mike Baker, who administered the test, testified Monday that Jimmy Motz passed the test but his emotions during it didn't appear to be genuine.
Some Rock Hill Police officers who testified Monday said the lie-detector result was part of the reason Jimmy Motz wasn't charged in his wife's death.
Jurors also heard testimony related to Motz's claim that his wife attempted suicide a few months before her death. They heard a 911 call from November 2000 where Motz said his wife had been drinking several beers and shots of liquor and took a lot of pills prescribed for stomach pain.
The emergency room doctor who saw her immediately after that call said Melissa Motz's symptoms were more consistent with being under the influence of alcohol than the type of pills she supposedly took.