TALLADEGA -- A Talladega County jury of seven men and five women deliberated for 35 minutes Wednesday morning before finding Christopher Isaac “El Safari” Surles, 24, guilty of murder following a two-day trial.
Surles now faces 20 to 99 years or life in prison. He will be sentenced Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. by Circuit Judge Bo Hollingsworth.
Surles was convicted of killing Matthew Howie, 19, on July 13, 2012, on Kentuck Mountain in Munford. Howie had been involved in a robbery with Surles and another person the day before, and Surles allegedly killed him to keep him from snitching.
According to testimony at trial, Surles, Howie and Hunter Bennett had spent a couple of weeks in July driving around Calhoun County in Howie’s Jaguar buying and taking drugs and committing various other crimes. The day before Howie was killed, Surles had used a Derringer pistol to rob a patron at a BB&T ATM of, among other things, a five-shot .38 caliber revolver. The robbery was caught on video and shown to the jury. They also used or attempted to use the robbery victim’s ATM card at several gas stations and convenience stores in Anniston, Oxford and Munford.
According to Bennett, Surles convinced Howie to trade the Jaguar for a Buick LaSabre and some cash. Surles told Howie that he would not go to jail, and told Bennett that he would “burn” or “hammer” a snitch.
After buying marijuana and methamphetamine, the group checked into a motel, and Surles suggested they rob a drug dealer he knew for about four pounds of marijuana. They first drove to a location in Oxford, then abruptly left when they saw a truck coming. It was at that point that they drove to Kentuck, according to the testimony.
Bennett said they had gotten out of the car to look at the engine when Surles shot Howie in the back of the head at close range, then shot him again in the back. Surles and Bennett then got back into the car and started to leave when Howie sat up and gasped. Bennett said Surles then stopped, got out of the car, and fired a third shot.
According to the medical evidence presented Tuesday, this third shot, which penetrated the victim’s forehead, was the shot that killed him. The two then drove around to various locations trying to dispose of various pieces of evidence.
Surles threatened Bennett before dropping him off at the hotel, then began driving out of state. Bennett called 911 and eventually took investigators to various locations where evidence had been dumped.
Surles was found asleep in Howie’s car in the parking lot of a Walmart in Tennessee two days later. The murder weapon, with two live rounds still in it, was in Surles’ lap, and his shoes still had Howie’s blood on them.
Surles is apparently a follower of the Sovereign Citizen belief system, and represented himself at trial. He asked no questions of potential jurors at the beginning of the trial -- although he did ask Hollingsworth to dismiss the entire panel -- and his opening statement was a seemingly incoherent reading of various federal statutes that did not appear to bear directly on his case. He was the only witness testifying on his behalf, telling the jury that he understood there was a circumstantial case against him but that he was innocent. Under cross examination from District Attorney Steve Giddens, Surles admitted that he initially lied to Talladega County Sheriff’s Department investigators, and refused to explain the evidence recovered in Tennessee or to tell the jury whether or not he had a prior criminal history. The state introduced a previous conviction against Surles for possession of a controlled substance.
At various times, Surles attempted to argue that Bennett was not reliable because he had not been prosecuted for his role in the robbery, although Bennett testified that he had been charged and was currently incarcerated. He was in court this week with an ankle monitor, he told the jurors.
During his closing argument, Surles said the evidence against him was “by constitutional law, inadmissible. The amendments were not brought up in cross examination. … It was not shown that state or constitutional law were followed in the complaint for my arrest warrant."
He went on to say, “I don’t see myself getting justice in this state or this court. Nine of these jurors are white,” he said, prompting Giddens to object strenuously.
“He helped strike this jury,” Giddens said to Hollingsworth, who advised Surles to “move on.”
“I didn’t pick this jury,” Surles insisted, with Giddens answering, “Yes, you did.”
“That was properly handled, now move on,” Hollingsworth said.
“Let the record show, my Fourth Amendment rights were violated,” Surles said. “There was no probable cause on me pertaining to murder. My Fifth Amendment right to due process was violated by not having probable cause. I waited forever for my fast, speedy trial. I don’t consent, but I’m representing myself, so I have to give a defense. That’s all.”
In his closing, Giddens once again pointed out that Surles had participated in jury selection and had lied at several points during the investigation and trial.
“There’s an old saying that says when there are no facts, argue the law. The fact is, this man killed (Howie). He won’t answer my questions, because he killed him. He lied because the truth finds him guilty.”
After the verdict was read, Hollingsworth ordered Surles taken back into custody. He would have to post a new bond of $500,000 to get out of jail until he is sentenced.
Contact Chris Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.