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Attorneys for convicted murderer petition court for new trial

The Lincoln County Circuit Court made no ruling Wednesday on motions presented by attorneys for convicted murderer Willie Cory Godbolt to be granted a new trial, though at the end of proceedings Judge David Strong said he would not grant a new trial based on any point presented during that session.

On Feb. 27, a jury of 10 women and two men sentenced the Bogue Chitto man to death two days after finding him guilty of capital murder in the shooting deaths of a Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy and three other people.

Judge  David Strong set Godbolt’s execution for July 15 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, although direct appeal was automatic and multiple avenues of appeal were expected to be followed by Godbolt.

On Memorial Day weekend of 2017, Godbolt took the lives of William Durr, Brenda May, Toccara May, Barbara Mitchell, Jordan Blackwell, Austin Edwards, Ferral Burage and Sheila Burage during an eight-hour rampage. He also attempted to kill deputy Timothy Kees, kidnapped LaPeatra Stafford and Xavier Bishop, and forced Henry and Alfred Bracey to hand over keys to a vehicle at gunpoint.

Godbolt, now 38, received life in prison for the deaths of Brenda May, Toccara May, Barbara Mitchell and Ferral Burage, life in prison for the attempted murder of Kees and life for the kidnapping of Xavier Lilly, 20 years for the kidnapping of LaPeatra Stafford and 20 years for the armed robbery.

All sentences, except the four death sentences, will run concurrently.

Wednesday morning, with less than a dozen observers present in the gallery for the session — primarily family of the victims, Godbolt was led into the courtroom in shackles and a red prison jumpsuit with the words “MDOC CONVICT” printed on the back, accompanied by his attorneys, Alison Steiner, Katherine Poor and M.A. Bass Jr. Steiner spoke for the group during the day’s proceedings.

Strong acknowledged that all of the defense’s points to be considered granting of a new trial could not be presented in the time the court had available, so he asked her to condense her oral argument to the most important points or to a consolidation of points, taking her presentation on a point-by-point basis, with the State being allowed to respond to each point. She and the State’s attorneys — District Attorney Dee Bates and Assistant District Attorneys Robert Byrd and Brendon Adams — agreed.

Steiner requested that Godbolt be allowed to address the court at the end of proceedings. Strong said he would allow 5 minutes. Steiner asked it be 15 minutes and Strong agreed to 10.

Beginning with her points, Steiner mentioned that someone had filed a pro se automatic appeal, but neither she, Godbolt nor anyone else on her team actually filed that appeal so they would like it nullified. Strong agreed.

Steiner argued “the court respectfully, erroneously” allowed the trial’s original schedule to proceed even though attorneys were changed, replaced and added; one attorney was pregnant and delivered a baby during the preparation process; and other events occurred making it difficult or impossible for an adequate defense to be prepared, especially in a case where the State was pursuing the death penalty on one or more charges. Steiner argued that, at times, she was the only attorney working on Godbolt’s defense.

ADA Brendon Adams responded for the prosecution, arguing that the original timeline took into consideration all of the issues and provided more than adequate time to prepare. Adams added that at times he had been the only attorney working on Godbolt’s prosecution, considering that the DA’s office had a full caseload in addition to the capital murder trial of Godbolt.

Strong reminded Steiner of the timeline — from the crimes committed on the weekend of Memorial Day 2017 to the trial set, to the original indictment made in March 2018 to the trial in February 2020 — nearly two years from indictment to trial, and said he felt all involved had adequate time to prepare.

Steiner also made a motion for a new trial based on the 12 counts not being severed into individual trials or at least not combined all into one trial. Strong responded that the evidence overlapped and that all the crimes had been committed in one sequence of assaults punctuated only by armed robbery and Godbolt riding around talking, and therefore severance was not warranted.

“The physical evidence, circumstantial evidence and direct evidence was so overwhelming that severance was not appropriate,” Strong said.

Steiner’s next point was an issue of venue change. She agreed with the court’s decision to change the location of the trial and to procure a jury from outside the area, but argued that neither was far enough away from where the crimes were committed and where news coverage presented salient facts to the public.

Strong responded that DeSoto County, from which the jurors were chosen, was the best choice for jurors considering its demographics, size and location — “We couldn’t have gone further away and still have been in the state,” he said — and that Pike County was more than adequate to conduct the trial.

Steiner then presented an argument that the jury selection was tainted because the defense had exhausted all of its strikes to remove potential jurors when some were selected who had family ties to law enforcement. Adams responded that what ties existed were tenuous, at best, and caused no problems with jurors based on their testimonies during selection.

Steiner argued that the use of Lincoln and Pike County bailiffs unduly influenced the jury and that location of meeting rooms and bathroom facilities in the Pike County Courthouse were biased against the defense and their witnesses, and that the jury could feel that negative atmosphere.

“How do you know that, Ms. Steiner?” Strong asked. “I don’t how you infer the jury felt something, when we took every step to insure that that jury didn’t feel the things you’re talking about … Frankly, I don’t know that you are qualified to say what the jury did and didn’t feel.”

All precautions were taken to preserve the integrity of the jury at every step, Strong said, and not one piece of evidence has been presented at any time to suggest otherwise, he said.

“There’s no merit to it,” he said.

After a short break, Godbolt was presented with his opportunity to address the court, having been instructed he must address all comments to the court, not to anyone present, and that his comments must be about the motions being presented.

Taking the full 15 minutes, with Strong’s permission, Godbolt argued that he should be granted a new trial based on multiple reasons, punctuating each with the statement, “For that, I deserve a new trial.”

Referring to himself several times as “Mr. Godbolt,” he said the so-called confession he gave on video at the time of his arrest while speaking to reporter Therese Apel should have been dismissed because, he claimed, Apel had stated she was given law enforcement-approved access to him and the crime scene at Lee Drive and represented that authority. Adams refuted this claim, saying both the video and Apel’s testimony proved otherwise.

Godbolt argued that he had asked for an attorney as he was being detained, but was denied that right because officers said he was speaking gibberish and were ignoring him. The prosecution responded that no evidence was ever presented that Godbolt had asked for an attorney and been denied.

Godbolt argued that his wife had testified against him, even saying they were divorced during her testimony. Because they were still married, that was a lie and all of her testimony should be questioned and dismissed. The state responded that all attorneys were aware the divorce was not final and that spouses can legally testify against one another if there is evidence of a crime against a child involved. Two children were killed by Godbolt during the crime spree.

Finally, Godbolt argued that he had never been provided a competency hearing and therefore should be granted a new trial. Strong responded to this, saying “at every single hearing” he asked the defense if they wanted to pursue the possibility of mental incompetency and have a competency hearing. The DA’s office had requested a competency hearing for Godbolt. Every one of these requests had been denied by Godbolt’s own attorneys.

Godbolt said this was proof his lawyers were incompetent and he deserved a new trial based on that and that he had not been allowed to testify on his own behalf, because nobody knew Mr. Godbolt like Mr. Godbolt. None of his attorneys looked like him and no one had advocated for him, he argued.

Strong said Godbolt had the opportunity throughout the trial to testify on his own behalf and had stated on the record that he did not want to do so. Only after the trial was concluded did he ask to speak. Unprecedented, Strong said, he allowed Godbolt to address the court. He allowed him to address the court again at the sentencing phase of trial, a first in all his years as a Justice Court judge, Strong said. And now he had been afforded a third chance to speak on his own behalf. He could not go back and testify during trial because he refused that opportunity, and that bell could not be unrung, the judge said.

Concluding the day’s court session, Strong said motion for a new trial based on the orally presented arguments would be denied, though he has not issued an official ruling. Strong said he would review the entire document of multiple issues submitted by the defense before making the official ruling.