‘This will be an emotional trial’

Published 9:18 pm Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Back in college I had a summer internship at The Panolian, a paper in North Mississippi. It was a good gig, but by July I had grown tired of typing honor rolls and garden club reports. My mentor must have sensed it. She gave me a shot at something a little bigger — a murder trial.

“Just write down what you see,” Rita Jean waved me off, a Bic pen clenched between her teeth. “And be sure to get the names right.”

What she failed to mention was that during breaks I’d be standing next to a Coke machine and a guy who had, at age 16, killed his best friend.

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Even so, I tried hard to look like I knew what I was doing, faithfully taking notes as the details played out: Two boys in love with the same girl. Boys go hunting. Only one comes back. Months later, someone stumbles over a skull in the woods.

But about Day 3 of the trial, a buzz of activity near the front of the courtroom brought my duties to a halt. After six years of denials and two trials, the accused (the one who liked Cokes and had stood near enough for me to count his freckles) decided to enter a guilty plea. I was just two rows behind both sets of families when they heard the news. No journalism class could prepare me for that.    

Strange how those memories came back to me Saturday during my drive to Magnolia, a county seat hosting a Mississippi murder trial of unsurpassed proportions.

I was a good hour early for 9 o’clock opening arguments in State of Mississippi v. Willie Cory Godbolt. I don’t know what I was expecting as I pulled into the lot behind the Pike County Courthouse. Maybe every parking space filled? A few television crews setting up for live coverage? A line at the metal detector?   

Instead, I learned that I couldn’t go inside until 8:30 and that flooding fears in the capital were keeping the big-name news teams occupied. I even beat the white van hauling those 5-days-to-finally-pick jury members.

But in the courtroom, a buffer meant I had time to notice little things, like boxes of Kleenex placed serenely on rows 6 and 7. A woman calling, “Hey, Cousin” to a someone across the aisle. Prosecutors with morning-slicked hair and Styrofoam cups of coffee talking it up with a defense attorney prone to smack gum.    

Above the scene, time ticked steadily away on an old Simplex wall clock (vintage, $69 on eBay.) At four minutes to 9, I was surprised to see the courtroom half empty. Five members of the media had both sides of the front row entirely to themselves.

At 9:10, a court reporter grabbed her machine and took it through a side door. A train blew through just before the lawyers re-entered at 9:25, and the judge finally found his bench five minutes later. He gave some instructions on courtroom decorum, then leaned down close to his mic to utter the obvious.

“This will be an emotional trial.”    

He was right. I could hear it in the hush and see it in courthouse doors swung open wide on a Saturday. I could sense it when a husband pointed to a photograph and said that was where his wife, four days out from an open-heart hospital stay, was shot. (The defense objected to the hospital part. Sustained.)

I could feel it, too, when a radio dispatcher raised her right hand in the witness stand and started weeping. I watched it when someone pointed out a lady passing through the crowd, remarking that “she’s the preacher’s wife who lost two grandsons.” I noted it when jurors bent their heads during those awful 9-1-1 audios.

Yes, emotional. It is no small thing to kill an image-bearer of God.

That was true when a murderous rampage left eight bloody bodies scattered across the width of Lincoln County, and it was true 35 years ago when a teenage love triangle led to a corpse in a dried-up creek bed. It will always be true, because we have a God with a supreme ability to hear blood crying out from the ground.

Just ask Cain.

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.