Addressing the 17-year-old who had pleaded guilty to accidentally killing her husband, Holly Black assured him that no one in her family wishes him harm — but they were seeking justice and accountability.
“To Eason, I just want to say be courageous and accept what this day has to offer,” she said.
Eason Gravley pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of involuntary manslaughter, possession of a pistol by person under 18 and malicious injury to property.
On the night of Oct. 10, Gravley was out with someone else when he stopped and exited his vehicle at the intersection of Pinetree Drive and Deadfall Road and fired multiple shots from a 9mm pistol at a street sign. One of the shots fired missed the sign and traveled through the wooded area behind, striking retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Joe D. Black Jr., who had been sitting on his front porch.
Black’s daughter was the first to hear the gunshots and went outside to check on the sound, but instead found her father lying on the porch, 8th Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo said during Thursday’s hearing. Black died on the porch from a single gunshot wound.
Greenwood County deputies and EMT’s responded as quickly as they could, and investigators found six 9mm shell casings in the intersection Gravley shot from, along with a cigarette butt. While officers were investigating the case, they took to Facebook with a post seeking any information in the case.
Gravley saw that post, Stumbo said, and by the end of the first weekend following the shooting he turned himself in to law enforcement, along with the gun he had fired.
In court Thursday, Joe Black’s sister Angel Cockrell read a letter aloud to the court, and explained how since her brother’s death, it feels like part of her soul is missing.
“Since that day I suffer a true, physical pain,” she said. “He is forever gone from this world as we know him.”
She emphasized that she holds no hate for Gravley, but questioned what good could come of the decision to fire a gun without regard for where the bullets will end up. Her family is focused on carrying forward her brother’s legacy, and spreading the importance of accountability and gun safety.
Gravley was represented by Greenwood attorney Billy Nicholson III, and Nicholson explained that there was never intent to harm behind Gravley’s actions. He said the teen had cried over the pain he caused and has sought to turn his energies toward helping others.
“To say that Eason is remorseful is an understatement,” Nicholson said. “I don’t think incarceration is needed to get him on the right track. I think he is headed on the right track.”
Nicholson explained that because of the charge, Gravley hasn’t been able to return to school but has been taking online classes to work on his GED. He had been a junior at Greenwood High School at the time of the shooting, and since then he’s dedicated his life to Christ and is eager to use his life to help others, Nicholson said.
A friend of the Gravley family, Amy Andrews, spoke on his behalf. She said she first met Gravley when he was 6 years old and in Cub Scouts. She said he grew up as a boy with a dedicated work ethic and a strong sense of loyalty, who at 15 took on many odd jobs to raise money so he could go on a mission trip to Nicaragua.
Nearly everyone made frivolous, potentially dangerous decisions in their teen years, Andrews said. She asked the court to consider his opportunities for redemption through sharing his story and warning others against thoughtless actions.
“Hindsight is 20/20, and none of us can turn back the hands of time,” she said.
A baseball coach who said Gravley was like a son to him told the court that the tragic accident doesn’t reflect the Gravley’s personality or character. Gravley himself, choking back tears, said he never meant to hurt anyone, and that he hopes there will come a day when the Black family can forgive him.
Circuit Judge Frank Addy, after hearing from the state and Gravley, told the Black family that the sense of forgiveness and grace with which they handled the situation restored some of his faith in humanity.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ll tell you what I’m used to is families coming in here looking for blood,” he said. “The ability to find forgiveness, as we are all told we should, is truly amazing.”
Addy said he recognizes that there’s no sentence that evens the scales tipped when Black died, but said part of his job in issuing a sentence is to send a message.
He sentenced Gravley to an active five-year Youth Offender Act sentence, confining him with the state Department of Corrections for five years. The conviction may be expunged from his record in the future, Addy said, and Gravley will be screened for eligibility in the Shock Incarceration Program — a 90-day program designed as an alternative to traditional incarceration that’s aimed at promoting reintegration into the community.