Fayette Circuit Court Judge Pamela Goodwine erred when she excluded the death penalty as a potential sentencing option in a murder and robbery case, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimouly ruled Thursday.
The decision affects the case of Trustin Jones, 23, and Robert Guernsey, 36, who are charged with murder and robbery in the 2013 shooting death of Derek Pelphrey. The case, which had been on hold while awaiting a decision by the high court, now goes back to Fayette Circuit Court.
In a decision last year, Goodwine granted a defense motion to remove the death penalty as a sentencing option for Jones and Guernsey if they were convicted.
Goodwine had said the death penalty “is the ultimate punishment and should be reserved and sought in cases involving only the most egregious set of facts one could possibly imagine.”
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But the Supreme Court ruled that Goodwine should have waited to hear the evidence at trial before deciding to exclude the death penalty.
While “the death penalty has fallen into disfavor in recent years, it remains a viable penalty in Kentucky authorized by our legislature in specific types of cases, including those in which the defendant is charged with committing murder in the course of the commission of first-degree robbery,” the Supreme Court said in its opinion.
While a circuit judge has discretion to determine whether death is constitutionally proportional, “there is no authority for exercising that discretion pretrial before all relevant evidence is actually heard,” the opinion said.
Had execution been excluded, a jury that convicts on a murder charge would have sentencing options of 20 to 50 years in prison, life in prison, life without the possibility of parole for 25 years, or life without parole.
Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn had no comment on the pending case.
Pelphrey, 23, a student at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, apparently was targeted because he had been in communication with Guernsey, who thought Pelphrey carried a large amount of money, according to information disclosed in pretrial conferences. Guernsey relayed that information to Jones, who admitted to police he was the shooter. Pelphrey was shot to death in his car on Ridgepoint Road near Spangler Drive.
A third co-defendant, Desmond Jones, 25, a cousin of Trustin Jones, pleaded guilty to criminal facilitation to first-degree robbery in 2015. A murder charge against him was dismissed. Before he is sentenced, Desmond Jones must testify at the trial of Trustin Jones and Guernsey.