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Court News Ohio

Second Death Sentence Upheld For 1994 Murder

Image of death row inmate James R. Goff

Death row inmate James R. Goff

Image of death row inmate James R. Goff

Death row inmate James R. Goff

For the second time, the Ohio Supreme Court has affirmed the death penalty for a Clinton County man who robbed and killed an 88-year-old woman he met while delivering furniture to her home.

The Supreme Court today unanimously upheld James R. Goff’s capital sentence for the 1994 murder of Myrtle Rutledge. The Court originally upheld his death sentence in 1998, but in 2010 a Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Goff’s case to be reopened. He was sentenced to death again, and appealed the decision.

Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated the justices analyzed Goff’s four objections to the trial proceedings and determined that no errors occurred. She wrote that his death sentence is proportionate to that of other offenders whose sentences the Court had previously affirmed.

Woman Beaten and Stabbed
In September 1994, Rutledge was in the process of moving into a new home and purchased furniture from a store in Wilmington. The next day, Goff and coworker, Manuel Jackson, delivered furniture to Rutledge’s home and assembled a bed for her.

Two days later, Rutledge’s daughter discovered her mother’s body. A deputy coroner determined she died from “blunt and sharp trauma to the head,” and suffered blood loss from multiple stab wounds.

Goff was arrested for the murder, and a jury found him guilty of aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, burglary, and grand theft of a motor vehicle.

Once an accused in Ohio has been found guilty in a death penalty case, the trial enters the sentencing phase, and a jury is presented with information, including evidence of aggravating circumstances that could lead a jury to recommend the death sentence, and mitigating circumstances that could lead to the jury advising a more lenient sentence. During the mitigation phase, Goff presented testimony from a former teacher, former landlord, and psychologist, who also compiled a history of Goff’s life, which included a troubled childhood.

The jury recommended a death sentence, and then the trial judge independently assessed and determined that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating factors. The trial court sentenced Goff to death.

Goff Files Multiple Appeals
Goff appealed his conviction and sentence to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals, which in 1997 affirmed the trial court’s decision. He appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which affirmed the death sentence in 1998.

In 2002, Goff sought postconviction relief in federal court from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, which denied his request, and he appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit ruled that Goff received ineffective assistance from his attorneys because they did not take issue with the trial court failing to allow Goff to allocute before his sentencing. The federal court ordered the Ohio courts to reopen Goff’s appeal.

The Twelfth District vacated its prior decision and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing. The appellate court directed the trial court to personally address Goff and “afford him his right to allocution before imposing a sentence.”

New Sentencing Hearing Leads to Same Result
The trial court granted Goff’s request to present new mitigation evidence and awarded him funds to hire a consulting psychologist. The psychologist’s report was presented to the trial court, and Goff’s attorneys urged the court to issue a life sentence, emphasizing Goff’s difficult childhood, his youth at the time of the offense, his substance abuse issues at the time, and his positive adjustment to life in prison.

Goff then made his statement to the court, noting he had not been violent in prison. He also referred to his troubled childhood and asked the court for leniency. The trial court again sentenced Goff to death, and he appealed. The Twelfth District affirmed the second death sentence, and Goff appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which was required to review his claims.

Appeal Focuses on Introduction of New Evidence
Among Goff’s objections to the trial court’s procedure, known as propositions of law, was that the trial court excluded additional mitigating evidence, including his good behavior in prison. He also claimed his trial attorneys were ineffective for failing to properly prepare him for his allocution and their inability to have his prison record considered.

Goff argued that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1978 Lockett v. Ohio decision and other cases, has ruled that a trial court must consider any mitigating factors the offender wants to raise when a death sentence is considered. Goff maintained that proof of his good behavior in prison should be a mitigating factor that would help justify a life sentence rather than death.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion explained that those cases are applicable only when an appeals court finds an error took place during the sentencing phase of the trial or earlier. Pointing to its 2013 State v. Roberts decision, the Court indicated that when an error occurs during a death penalty case and the case is remanded, the case begins anew at the point where the error occurred.

In Goff’s case, the error noted by the Sixth Circuit was the failure to allow Goff to allocute. That took place after the close of the trial mitigation phase. The trial court did not have to accept the additional evidence, the Court concluded.

Claims of Ineffective Assistance Rejected
Goff offered two reasons why his attorneys ineffectively represented him at the second sentencing hearing. He claimed they failed to introduce testimony from prison staff and information from his prison record. Because the Supreme Court concluded that Goff did not have a right to present his prison record as new mitigating evidence, the trial lawyers were not ineffective for failing to have the trial consider it.

Goff also characterized his statement at allocution as of a “brief, detached” nature because his attorneys did not adequately prepare him. Had his lawyers helped him make a “coherent, compelling presentation” by guiding him with questions, encouraging him to apologize to the victim’s family, and explaining to him the importance of his statement, then the outcome may have been different, he argued.

The opinion stated that nothing in the case record indicates what steps the attorneys took to prepare Goff, and that to claim ineffective counsel, Goff had to prove that the attorneys’ unprofessional behavior would have led to a different result.

“While asserting that ‘allocution is a significant opportunity for the defendant and can impact the outcome of the proceedings,’ Goff failed to make the crucial argument that his sentence would have been different had counsel better prepared him to allocute,” the Court stated.

Court Completes Independent Review
The Court is required to independently review Goff’s death sentence and to consider its appropriateness and whether it is proportional to the penalty given for those who committed similar crimes. The opinion noted most of the review was completed when the Court originally affirmed his death sentence in 1998.

The Court indicated it considered his troubled past, and the fact that he had adjusted to life in prison, but those factors were not enough to change the outcome. The Court found the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Goff identified Rutledge, an 88-year-old woman, as a potential burglary victim while delivering furniture to her. He returned to Rutledge’s home and murdered her in the course of the burglary. In contrast, Goff’s mitigation evidence has little significance,” the Court stated.

2017-0021. State v. Goff, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-3762.

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