Ala. man’s death row case now before Miss. Supreme Court

Published 12:39 pm Monday, January 26, 2009

The fate of condemned murderer Joseph Bishop Goff may depend on what happened with the victim’s wallet.

The Theodore, Ala., man was sentenced to death in George County in 2005 for the killing of Brandy Stewart Yates. He also got 10 years for arson for setting fire to the motel room where Yates’ body was found.

An attorney for Goff argued to the Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday that Goff’s death sentence should be overturned because prosecutors didn’t prove Yates’ wallet was stolen during the crime. In Mississippi, capital murder is defined as murder committed along with the commission of another crime — in this case robbery.

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According to court records, Yates, of Irvington, Ala., had left her husband and two young children to be with Goff three weeks before her body was found at the Rocky Creek Inn in Lucedale on Aug. 27, 2004.

A motel clerk testified Yates showed identification from her wallet to rent the room and carried the wallet back to her car where Goff was waiting. Court testimony was that the two argued, Goff left only to return, got a duplicate key for the room and killed Yates, setting fire to the room to cover up the crime.

Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol troopers arrested Goff later on Aug. 27 during a traffic stop for a defaced tag along Interstate 20 in Warren County. In a search of the car, officers found Yates’ wallet in the console.

Goff’s attorney, Andre de Gruy with the state Office of Capital Defense Counsel, told the court the wallet was the prosecution’s key evidence to support the capital murder charge and the death penalty.

De Gruy said other items Goff took from the room were covered with blood or soot from the fire. He said the wallet was neither bloody nor blackened by the fire, supporting Goff’s argument that Yates left the wallet in the car after leaving the motel office.

“We know she had the wallet in the office. We know she was driving. We know she got back into the car. We don’t know what happened to the wallet after that. It is all speculation,” de Gruy told the court.

Assistant Attorney General Patrick McNamara argued it was a reasonable inference for the jury to conclude Goff took the wallet when he gathered up items in the room before leaving.

“He was in possession of it after her death. It was the only thing of value that he could take and use,” McNamara said.

However, Justice James W. Kitchens questioned what evidence showed the wallet was in the room.

“The statute requires that it be taken from her person,” Kitchens said.

Justice Jess H. Dickinson also questioned at what point there was a robbery.

“If he decided to take the wallet after he killed her, does it qualify as a robbery? The jury in this case had to believe that part of the reason Mr. Goff killed her was to take the wallet,” Dickinson said.

McNamara said it was reasonable for the jury to believe that Yates had her wallet and that Goff would keep it separate from anything else taken from the room.

“The inference was clear to the jury that the only way he could get her property was to take it from her,” McNamara said.