Man sentenced to life imprisonment in cab driver’s murder

FRONT ROYAL — Circuit Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. upheld the jury’s verdict months after the four-day trial and on Monday and sentenced a Front Royal man to life imprisonment with a $100,000 fine.

FRONT ROYAL — Clay Marshall Curtis, convicted of first-degree murder in the December 2014 shooting death of  Front Royal cab driver Simon Funk, was sentenced Monday to life imprisonment and a $100,000 fine.

The sentence, imposed by Circuit Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr.,  upheld a verdict recommended by the same jury that found Curtis, 64,  guilty at the end of a four-day trial on June 29. The jury deliberated less than two hours before finding Curtis guilty.

Curtis’ sentence also included an additional mandatory three years in prison for use of a firearm in commission of a felony.

Curtis was acquitted on a related attempted second-degree murder charge stemming from accusations that he tried to run over Jeff Sisler with Funk’s van.

Before delivering the sentence, Athey heard arguments from one of Curtis’ defense attorneys, David Hensley, about setting aside the jury’s verdict. Hensley argued that through the four-day trial, which he called a “dredged affair,” the prosecution did not present evidence that was sufficient to convict Curtis of first-degree murder.

Hensley also argued that the prosecution’s late filing of DNA evidence just before the trial was initially set to begin in April caused the defense to request the trial’s postponement. And, without that postponement, Hensley argued, the prosecution would not have been able to bring evidence of motive through Michael Turner, the inmate who testified that Curtis confessed to him that he committed the crime. Hensley also renewed his argument that a mistrial should have been declared when Turner revealed that Curtis had been in federal prison, as it unfairly prejudiced the jury.

“That’s a bell that can’t be un-rang,” Hensley said during his argument.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton argued that they had presented evidence of potential motive through Carla Elliott, Funk’s girlfriend at the time of the murder. She testified that Curtis was angry after the couple didn’t let Curtis live with them after he had to leave the Relax Inn in town. Layton also contended that the timing of evidence is irrelevant, as sometimes evidence can come to light even during a trial. He added that the evidence presented during the trial was enough to convict Curtis of the crime, even though it was purely circumstantial.

“The evidence of guilt here is overwhelming,” Layton said.

Athey denied the defense’s motion to set aside the jury’s verdict and heard argument about the sentence he should impose. Layton asked that the court uphold the jury’s verdict and uphold the recommendation from the pre-sentence investigation, which also called for life imprisonment. John Bell, Curtis’ other attorney in this case, asked that the judge consider a lighter sentence to give Curtis a chance for geriatric release in the future. He also argued that a 10- or 15-year sentence would have the same effect as life imprisonment because of Curtis’ age. He also asked the judge to consider suspending the $100,000 fine because there will never be a way for Curtis to pay it. Layton argued that if Curtis’ family member leaves him a large sum of money then he would be able to pay that fine, even though it was extremely unlikely.

Athey gave Curtis the opportunity to speak before delivering his sentence.  Curtis said that he does not agree with the jury’s verdict. He then expressed “sadness and sorrow” for Funk’s family and the “pain and suffering” they went through because of their loss. Curtis then requested that the judge order him into solitary confinement so that he could be in isolation when he returned to Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail.

After speaking to the importance of juries in the U.S.,  Athey upheld the jury’s verdict, noting Curtis’ pattern of re-offending and spending at least 35 years of his life in prison.  He also denied Curtis’ request for isolation, saying that it should be the determination of the Department of Corrections if an inmate should be placed in isolation.

“I do wish you the best of luck going forward,” Athey told Curtis after explaining his sentence.

The prosecution dropped the charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm because of the sentence Athey gave. Curtis was animated in his seat before the hearing as he spoke to his attorneys about his “constitutional right to a fair trial.”  He was much more subdued as the bailiffs escorted him out of the courtroom. Hensley was appointed to handle any appeal that may be filed in this case.

Funk’s family left the courtroom smiling after hearing the judge’s sentence.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Connie Clatterbuck, Funk’s mother, said after the sentencing hearing as they were leaving the courthouse. “And [I’m glad] he finally more or less admitted to murdering my son.”