WOODSTOCK — A Toms Brook man will go to prison for manslaughter, but not murder, because he was drunk when 30-year-old Phillip Shifflett died in August 2019.
Todd Bly, 53, pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in Shenandoah County Circuit Court on Friday in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence. A charge of using a firearm in a felony was dropped. A five-day trial was expected to begin Aug. 16.
Shenandoah County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley said during Friday's hearing that Shifflett and his brother, Nick, were living with Bly, who is their stepfather, in Toms Brook.
The brothers returned home from work at Amazon on Aug. 19, 2019, to find Bly upstairs. Phillip Shifflett and Bly began arguing about food and leaving the lights on, Wiseley said. Bly told Phillip Shifflett he was going to get a bullet, and Shifflett told him to go ahead.
Nick Shifflett, who was in another room doing laundry, heard a "scuffle" and then a gunshot, Wiseley said. Nick then saw his brother holding his chest and Bly holding a gun, Wiseley said. Phillip Shifflett removed his hand from his chest and blood spilled in the kitchen, Wiseley said.
Phillip Shifflett then walked to the living room, where he fell to the ground, Wiseley said. Bly stepped over his stepson, left the apartment and drove about a mile to his mother’s house, where he told her to call 911 to report the shooting, Wiseley said.
A Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office deputy responded and found Phillip Shifflett on the living room floor, where he was breathing but unresponsive, Wiseley said.
Phillip Shifflett was transported to Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy report found burn marks on his chest where the bullet entered his body, Wiseley said. The burn marks indicated that the gun was fired at close range.
Bly was initially charged with first-degree murder, but Nick would have testified that Bly was intoxicated during the incident, Wiseley said during Friday's hearing.
Wiseley explained in an email that intoxication negates the possibility that the killing was premeditated, which is required for a first-degree murder conviction.
"This problem cannot be overstated: when a sole eyewitness will testify credibly that the defendant cannot be guilty of the crime of which he is charged, it is unethical for a prosecutor to pursue the charge," Wiseley wrote.
Wiseley said she was unable to speak with Nick Shifflett until Aug. 9, at which point she learned Bly was intoxicated. Cody Long, 30, of Woodstock, another brother of Phillip Shifflett, said during a phone interview that Nick had work conflicts that prevented him from speaking with Wiseley.
Long said that he wishes Bly had received a stiffer penalty but understands the circumstancing leading to the deal. He added that Bly has a hot temper and this could happen again, noting that Bly pulled a gun on him about 12 years ago.
While a jury could have found malice in the shooting and returned a conviction of second-degree murder, they also could have returned a lesser charge after finding the shooting was accidental and occurred during a "scuffle," Wiseley explained by email. Or the jury could have returned a not guilty verdict altogether.
"I understand that the family is not happy with a 10 year sentence — nor am I," Wisely wrote. " ... while I will not pretend I am fully satisfied with 10 years, I am convinced this plea was the best way to ensure Phillip Shifflett received the justice he deserved.”
Sentencing recommendations called for five years and eight months in prison, Wiseley also wrote by email. The cap on a prison sentence for voluntary manslaughter is 10 years, Wiseley wrote.
Judge William Sharp, who accepted the deal, noted that although the sentence exceeds the guidelines, Bly was receiving a significantly reduced penalty in the deal. He could have received life in prison if found guilty of first-degree murder.
Ryan Nuzzo, Bly's attorney, said had the case gone to trial the defense would have argued a slightly different string of events occurred that night. The deal was accepted, Nuzzo added, to avoid risking a harsher outcome during trial.
Bly declined to say anything during the hearing.
Long described his brother as a creative person with a mind like an engineer;s who enjoyed understanding how things work.
The three brothers grew up apart from each other but saw each other over the summers when they were children. Long said the death has brought the family — which includes a sister in New York — closer together.