Byers sentenced to life for ax murder
(Ed. note: This report is taken from a longer story in the Pickens Progress. A verdict and sentence came in to the Times-Courier on Tuesday, Aug. 7, after the Aug. 8 issue had gone to press with a story of the trial.)
After just over an hour of deliberation, a jury found Christopher Byers, 34, guilty on all 14 counts of his indictment including malice and felony murder. Byers was sentenced in Pickens County Superior Court to life in prison.
The Gilmer County man was accused of murdering his friend Ray Walnoha, also of Gilmer, in 2014 at a Cove Road residence in Pickens.
The verdict came after five full days of trial, which included testimony from Byers’s friend Arnold Griffith who said he was present when Byers killed Walnoha at Griffith’s Cove Road property.
According to Griffith, 59, he helped Byers hide the body in a shallow grave in the woods near his house. In exchange for his testimony, murder charges were dropped against Griffith who served one year for concealing a death, tampering with evidence and abandonment of a body. He has since been released from jail.
During plea negotiations, Byers refused an offer from the state that would have given him a much lighter sentence in exchange for information about the body’s whereabouts, instead opting to take the case to trial.
In May of 2016, the Pickens County Sheriff’s office visited the Cove Road residence to investigate a theft, and late that month on May 20 the GBI became involved in the case and the death investigation ensued. During that two-year period between the alleged death and formal investigation, Walnoha had not been reported missing by family and friends. A matter that complicated the case significantly was that Walnoha’s body was never found.
The defense argued that without a body there is no proof their client committed murder, and that “[Walnoha] could walk in the door at any moment.” The prosecution, led by Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Alison Sosebee and attorney Stephen Spencer, argued, among other things, Byers admitted to the crime.
Confesses ... to striking
The prosecution played video interviews of Byers with GBI and FBI agents in which he confesses to striking Walnoha in the head with an ax. The ax, which was pulled out as evidence numerous times during the trial, had a double head and a red-and-black fiberglass handle.
Byers claimed a friend had moved the body from the original burial site sometime in 2015.
Chris Hollifield, a man who was incarcerated with Byers in the Pickens County Adult Detention Center, testified that Byers had been bragging about killing
Walnoha while in jail. He said Byers told him he had been in an altercation with Walnoha and waited for his chance for revenge when he was asleep on a couch on Griffith’s front porch, where he said he hit him with the ax. Hollifield said Byers told him Walnoha went into the yard and “was twitching” after he was struck.
“[Byers] said as long as he didn’t find a body there wouldn’t be a case,” he said.
The climax of the trial was testimony from Griffith, who described events of the day of Walnoha’s death sometime during the week of June 20-26, 2014. Griffith admitted to helping bury Walnoha’s body at Griffith’s house. Griffith said Byers and Walnoha were hanging around outside on the property where Griffith’s elderly parents and sister also live in separate dwellings.
After Griffith had lunch with his parents, he went home and started watching a movie. Walnoha was sleeping on a couch on the porch when Griffith returned.
“Chris came to the door and said, ‘Arnold, come here,’” Griffith said.
Griffith said he then walked outside with Byers who asked him, “See Ray?”
Griffith saw Walnoha in the yard sitting down but didn’t think anything of it, other than that he might be getting some sun. He asked Byers what Walnoha was doing. Griffith said Byers told him, “He’s dying.” Griffith said he did not hear an argument between Byers and Walnoha.
When defense asked why Griffith didn’t call 911 about the murder if it was something he would have no part of, he again said he was concerned about his parents, who were around 90 at the time. He also said even though they were friends, he “didn’t want to upset a crazy person,” referring to Byers and that by the day after the murder he “felt he had already stepped into it,” and “didn’t know what measure of trouble I’d be in.”
The death investigation, which occurred a full two years after the death, uncovered little in the way of evidence. One blood sample, which did not have sufficient material to perform a DNA test, was found on the porch wall. A few tiny bones were found in a burn barrel near the burial site, but they were so small no DNA could be found and expert witnesses from the GBI said it was impossible to determine whether they were human or animal remains.
Cadaver dog ‘hit’ on scent
Some of the strongest evidence from the death investigation was a cadaver dog who was brought in and “hit” on the area where Griffith said the body was buried.
The location of Walnoha’s body is still unknown to authorities. After the verdict came in, Judge Brenda Weaver, who heard the case, asked Byers if he had any comments.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Byers, who was wearing a gray suit. “I maintain my innocence, ma’am. I didn’t do it.”
Weaver reminded Byers of the more lenient plea offer he refused. The sentence does not keep him from being paroled.