A mass murder trial coming up in Pike County may turn out to be the biggest local court event in memory — in terms of number of victims, length of trial and amount of media interest.
Pike County Circuit Clerk Roger Graves said he’s never seen anything like it.
“Nothing in 32 years. Nothing that compares to this,” he said.
On trial will be Willie Cory Godbolt of Bogue Chitto, accused of killing eight people, including a sheriff’s deputy, family members and acquantainces, in a bloody rampage in Lincoln County in May 2017.
Victims were Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy William Durr, Godbolt’s mother-in-law Barbara Mitchell, Brenda May, Tocarra May, Austin Edwards, Jordan Blackwell, Ferral Burage and Shelia Burage.
Godbolt will be tried on four counts of capital murder, four counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, two counts of kidnapping and one count of armed robbery.
District Attorney Dee Bates said his office will seek the death penalty.
Godbolt is represented by attorneys with the capital defense counsel division of the state public defender’s office.
Jury selection will begin Monday in DeSoto County. Once jurors are selected, they will be bused to Pike County for the trial and sequestered for the duration, Graves said.
The trial is a Lincoln County Circuit Court case but will be held in the Pike County courtroom since it’s larger.
Judge David Strong will preside in the trial, which officials said could last two to three weeks.
Since the jurors will be sequestered, the trial will probably run seven days a week, though with shorter hours on weekends, officials said.
Lincoln County Circuit Clerk officials will manage the trial with assistance from the Pike County Circuit Clerk’s office.
The Administrative Office of Courts will serve as media liaison. Court officials are preparing for a media onslaught but aren’t sure how many print reporters or TV crews will come, much less stay.
The entire front row will be reserved for the media. A designated still photographer will be allowed to take photos within court guidelines, and a TV camera will be allowed to set up in the corner of the courtroom. Newspaper and TV stations will each have a designated “pool photographer” that will share footage, according to a court order by Judge David Strong.
With eight victims there will likely be many family members in attendance, but many of those may serve as witnesses and will thus have to stay in witness rooms rather than the main courtroom, officials said.
The most comparable case Graves could remember was Alan Michael Rubenstein, who was tried for capital murder, two counts of murder and wire fraud 20 years ago.
Rubenstein stabbed his stepson Darryl J. Perry, 24, and Perry’s 20-year-old wife Evelyn Ann to death in November 1993, and strangled their 4-year-old daughter, Crystal on Johnston Station Road north of Summit.
A 12-day trial in 1999 ended in a hung jury. A second, week-long trial in 2000 resulted in conviction. Rubenstein was sentenced to death, but that was later commuted to three consecutive life sentences.
Then there was Glen Conley of Ponchatoula, La., convicted in 1998 of drowning his 3-year-old daughter Whitney Berry at Percy Quin State Park. Conley was found guilty of capital murder after a week-long trial and sentenced to life in prison.
That trial was marked by a near-riot when Conley slugged Assistant District Attorney Bill Goodwin during a break, knocking him down and prompting a lockdown of the courtroom and a pistol drawn by a deputy.
As far as length, there was the seven-day Yellow Freight civil trial in 1998, in which the family of a man run over on Interstate 55 sued Yellow Freight Systems and its driver for wrongful death. The jury awarded $500,000 to the family, but Judge Keith Starrett threw out the verdict and ordered a new trial, which was held in 2000 and lasted four days before the defendants were cleared.
As for media interest, there was the 1996 Lincoln County three-day civil trial in which John Grisham, by then a world-famous author, served as attorney. Grisham represented a widow suing Illinois Central Railroad Co. for the on-the-job death of her husband.
Media present at the Lincoln County courthouse were from the London Daily Mail newspaper, USA Today, the New York Times, the TV show “Inside Edition,” the Clarion-Ledger and Jackson TV, along with local newspapers.
The interest didn’t last long, however, and by late afternoon of the first day, most of the reserved media seats were empty.