Court denies Ford's death row appeal

COVINGTON - The federal appeals court in Atlanta has denied an appeal by Newton County death row inmate Melbert Ray Ford Jr., who was convicted of killing his former girlfriend and her 11-year-old niece in a 1986 robbery at Chapman's Grocery store on Ga. Highway 81 where they worked.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a federal judge's denial of Ford's habeas corpus petition.

Ford claimed that his constitutional rights were violated and that he had ineffective assistance of counsel at his sentencing for the deaths of Martha Chapman Matich and Lisa Chapman.

According to court records, after Ford's relationship with Matich ended, he began harassing her by telephone. Two weeks prior to her death, Ford is reported to have told a friend that he "was going to blow her ... brains out."

The records say that Ford had tried to get a friend to drive him to the store the day before Matich's death, telling the friend that he planned to rob the store and kill his former girlfriend.

"On March 6, 1986, Ford talked to several people about robbing the store. He told one that he intended to kidnap Ms. Matich, take her into the woods, make her beg and then shoot her in the forehead. Ford tried to talk another into helping him with his robbery (Ford has no car). When this effort failed, Ford responded that 'there wasn't anybody crazy around here anymore,'" court documents read.

Finally that same day, Ford was able to talk 19-year-old Roger Turner into helping him. Turner drove Ford to the store just before closing time and later said after Ford entered the store, he heard screams and gunshots. Ford ran from the store to the car, carrying a bag of money.

"At 10:20 p.m., the store's burglar alarm sounded. A Newton County sheriff's deputy arrived at 10:27 p.m. Ms. Matich was lying dead behind the counter, shot three times. Lisa Chapman was discovered in the bathroom, shot in the head but still alive, sitting on a bucket, bleeding from the head and having convulsions. She could answer no questions. She died later," the court records state.

Ford and Turner were arrested the next day. At trial, Ford claimed that he was too drunk to know what was happening and that it was Turner who entered the store and killed the victims. The jury, however, didn't believe him, and he was convicted of two counts of murder, armed robbery, burglary and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to death on each of the murder convictions.

According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, other Newton County inmates now on death row are William David Riley Sr. and Bryan Keith Terrell.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com.