• 59°

Capital cases are complex, costly

The man accused of killing eight people in a shooting spree Memorial Day weekend is facing a capital murder charge. If he is indicted and the case proceeds to trial, it will be a lengthy and expensive process that may not take place in Lincoln County.

Willie Cory Godbolt was charged with one count of capital murder and seven counts of first degree murder. The capital murder charge is for the death of sheriff’s deputy William Durr. The first degree murder charges are for the deaths of Barbara Mitchell, her daughter, Toccara May and Mitchell’s sister Brenda May, all of Bogue Chitto; Austin Edwards, his cousin, Jordan Blackwell, of Brookhaven; and Ferral and Shelia Burage, of Brookhaven.

The court documents detailing the charges against Godbolt state that he knew Durr was a law enforcement officer when he killed him.

Joel Smith, district attorney of Hancock, Harrison and Stone counties, whose grandfather was the founder of Brookhaven Funeral Home, said the potential death penalty case would be expensive and could take years.

Up next for Godbolt will be a preliminary hearing in Justice Court. He is being represented by court-appointed public defenders Paul Luckett of Pike County and Gus Sermos of Lawrence County. The court will review probable cause and facts of the case. From that point forward, a file will be put together for an investigative agency. Whether it be witness statements, recordings, written statements, any kind of identification procedures — an investigative team will put all of the information together.

The investigative team will also gather any forensic testing items. Whether it’s DNA testing, fingerprints or ballistics testing, those types of things would be submitted to the Mississippi Crime Lab or to a private lab for analysis.

“One they get all of that information put together, they will turn that completed file over to the prosecutor’s office and at that point, the prosecutor would then present their case to the next available grand jury,” Smith said. “The formal charging comes after you present the information in front of the grand jury. The timing of that can vary depending on the complexity of the investigation and the complexity of any testing. Prosecutors want the evidence to be completed prior to presenting the case to the grand jury.”

It could be as late as the end of the year before a Lincoln County grand jury potentially hears the case.

“The crime lab in Mississippi has a significant case load, which can make it difficult as far as timing goes,” said Smith. “It can cause a delay in moving forward with the case.”

If the grand jury were to indict Godbolt, the accused would be brought before the court for a formal arraignment.

Whether there would be one trial or eight different trials for each victim if the case reaches that point is still to be determined.

“There is a statutory procedure in Mississippi that allows cases to be tried together if they arise out of a common scheme or plan,” said Smith. “The court will consider a lot of factors in determining whether or not the case arose out of common scheme or plan, then they would make the decision whether to try every count together, separately, or some combination thereof.”

If there is a trial, it could take place outside of Lincoln County. A motion filed for change of venue is often associated with someone believing that they could not get a fair trial in the home county of the case.

“Most capital cases have tremendous pre-trial publicity and because of that, the question for the trial judge is whether or not the defendant can receive a fair and impartial trial in a county where the crime allegedly occurred,” Smith said. “There are two options for changing the venue for the trial. The court at the change of venue hearing would allow both parties and the court to interview a sampling of jurors from the home county. They would be able to ask them about their knowledge of the case and their in-depth knowledge of the cases and then determine whether or not their knowledge of the case would affect them to be a fair juror.”

Based on those sample jurors statements, the court would make the decision on whether or not to keep the case in the home county or change venues. If the judge decides to change venues, they have a couple of different options.

“They can change venues to a similarly situated county in the state of Mississippi, where they would have less knowledge of the case,” Smith said. “The second option would be to select jurors from a new county, bring the jury back to the home county and try the case. What comes into play is what is the most efficient way to try the case.”

In all capital murder trials, the jurors are sequestered. Whether the jury is picked and brought back to the home county or whether it’s tried in another county, the jury would stay in hotel rooms and have no contact with the public for the duration of the court proceedings.

“Death penalty cases are expensive,” Smith said. “They have significant cost attached to them, primarily because what is at stake in the case.”

“A death penalty case is a unique case to try because it is what you call a bifurcated proceeding,” Smith said. “A bifurcated proceeding means you have two phases of a case. The first phase of the case is the guilty or innocent phase. Where the jury hears all of the facts of the case and they decide whether or not the accused in guilty or innocent of that particular crime. The jury will have the option of deciding whether or not the accused is guilty of capital murder or not in this case,” Smith said.

“The second phase of the case, if he’s found guilty of capital murder, is the sentencing phase,” said Smith. “The same jury typically will hear the sentencing phase of the trial. The state will give reasons of why the accused should receive the death penalty and the defense will give reasons not to give the death penalty and ultimately it’s up to the jury to decide that.”

Death penalty sentences are typically appealed at several levels. The appeals process can take years, meaning Godbolt, if indicted and convicted and sentenced to death, could spend years in jail awaiting a sentence that may never be carried out. Mississippi hasn’t executed someone since 2012, according to an online database.

There are currently 47 people on death row in the state.