Co-defendants in an upcoming robbery-murder trial will not face the possibility of execution after Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine granted a defense motion to remove the death penalty from the jury's sentencing options.
Trustin B. Jones and Robert Guernsey, scheduled to go on trial June 1, had faced the possibility of execution if convicted in the 2013 shooting death of Derek Pelphrey, 23.
On Tuesday, Goodwine, who has expressed opposition to the death penalty in court, granted a defense request to exclude death from consideration for Jones, 21, and Guernsey, 34. The ruling was sought by Kim Green, an assistant public advocate who represents Jones. Guernsey's attorneys joined Green to seek the exclusion for their clients.
Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said Wednesday that he disagreed with Goodwine's decision "because I think she has put herself, a judge, in the position of a jury. Juries are supposed to be the bodies that determine the appropriate punishment for an aggravated murder."
Larson said his assistant prosecutors were investigating legal options in response to the judge's order.
Last year, Goodwine rejected another defense motion that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Earlier this year, Goodwine rejected the argument that Guernsey should not face the death penalty because he wasn't the shooter.
When execution is excluded, a jury that convicts on a murder charge would have sentencing options of 20 to 50 years in prison, life in prison, or life without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
During a hearing last week, Goodwine said she had taken execution off the table — as state law allows — in only one other case "because I just did not believe the facts of the case would even get to the point where the jury would even consider" the death penalty.
The jury in that case acquitted the defendant, Goodwine said.
In January, Goodwine said in open court, "I think the death penalty should not be a penalty, ever."
"If I had my druthers, there would be no death penalty in Kentucky," she said, but "I will do what the law requires me to do."
Pelphrey, 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. Pelphrey was shot to death as he sat in his car on Ridgepoint Road near Spangler Drive, not far from Tates Creek and Wilson Downing roads.
Jones admitted to police that he was the shooter and that his "sole purpose in going there that night was to rob" Pelphrey, whom he didn't know and hadn't met, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andrea Williams said during last week's hearing.
Jones "got all his information from Robert Guernsey and sat outside of BCTC and waited for Derek Pelphrey to come out of class. He got the information about the car that Derek Pelphrey drove from Robert Guernsey and followed that car."
Guernsey wanted Jones to rob Pelphrey because Guernsey needed money for a car payment, Williams said.
A third co-defendant, Desmond Jones, 24, a cousin of Trustin Jones, pleaded guilty in April to criminal facilitation to first-degree robbery. A murder charge against him was dismissed. His recommended sentence was five years in prison.
Before he is sentenced June 26, Desmond Jones must testify at the trial of Guernsey and Trustin Jones.
Fayette County juries aren't prone to recommending the death penalty, Goodwine said last week.
"I've obviously tried heinous, heinous crimes with totally innocent victims — rapes, murders, sodomies — and they don't see fit even in those cases to impose the death penalty," Goodwine said.
The most recent example was April in the trial of Joel Searcy, who was charged with murder in the 2013 death of Donald "Leroy" Cook, 82, of Lexington. Police said Searcy assaulted Cook, who later died, and tried to steal Cook's truck.
Had he been convicted of murder, Searcy might have faced the death penalty. But after a three-week trial before Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark, the jury found Searcy guilty of second-degree manslaughter and first-degree robbery. The jury recommended a 10-year sentence for manslaughter and 15 years for robbery, with the sentences to be served consecutively, for a total of 25 years.
In her order to exclude execution, Goodwine wrote that she had presided over more death-penalty cases than any other judge in Kentucky, according to information she received from a judicial program.
Goodwine wrote: "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."
In a footnote, Goodwine wrote that the last time the death penalty was imposed and upheld in Fayette County was in 2000, in the murder and robbery of Lonetta White, 73. She was bludgeoned to death, placed in the trunk of her car, driven to a field and set on fire. Virginia Caudill and Johnathan Goforth are awaiting execution in that case.
There are 33 people under a death sentence in Kentucky. The state has carried out three executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. The last time an inmate was put to death was in 2008.
Goodwine said during the hearing last week that even when juries recommend execution, the cases continue for years because of numerous appeals.
"There's something to be said for closure. There's something to be said for finality, which doesn't happen when a death-penalty conviction is handed down," she said. "And for the victim's families ... there is no closure because their cases are still going, they're still arguing, they're still challenging ... death convictions that have been handed down."