Guilty: Jury convicts Wood Grill murder suspect
After two-and-a-half hours of deliberation, a jury found 25-year-old Roderick "Guam" McDowell guilty of first-degree murder and robbery in the April 12, 2007 slaying of William Godsey, the husband of Wood Grill Buffet night manager Sandra Godsey.
The victim was beaten over the head with a baseball bat until it shattered, and died 12 days later. While the courtroom was pindrop quiet during most of the trial, emotions ran high once the jury reached its verdict.
"How could you?" implored Godsey through tears, sitting on the witness stand during sentencing, moments before rushing out of Albemarle Circuit Court.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Elliott Casey hailed the guilty verdict as "an inspiring day to the citizens of Albemarle County."
"This case," said Casey, "is a credit to citizens coming forward and telling the truth."
Casey was referring to the six witnesses he called who had all been imprisoned with McDowell in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, where they all said McDowell had told them of his involvement in the crime.
One by one, men whose names the Commonwealth requested be kept out of media reports due to their status as informants who have allegedly already received death threats, said McDowell’s loose lips were what put them on the stand.
One described a night in which he and McDowell got into an argument over who got to use the jailhouse phone when he said McDowell threatened, “Get off the phone, or I’ll hit you in the head like I did the man at the Wood Grill.”
Another said he was playing poker with McDowell in jail when McDowell told him that he had worked at the Wood Grill, knew when the night manager would be leaving with that night’s deposit, and reportedly said, “I did it with my boy.”
Another spoke of McDowell threatening anyone who would testify against him by warning, “If I catch them, I’ll f*** them up.”
However, of the six inmates the Commonwealth called over the course of two days, only two say they spoke with McDowell around the time of the April 12 murder.
One was a McDowell friend, who testified that on the night of April 11, the two concocted a plan to rob the Wood Grill Buffet at the moment the McDowell knew that night manager Sandra Godsey would be leaving with the deposit. After the two split up later that evening, he testified McDowell came to his house and asked to borrow his gun, at which point, the witness said, he backed out.
When the witness heard the next day that the Wood Grill had been robbed and a $10,000 reward offered, he said he approached the owner of the restaurant through an intermediary and said, “You give me $1,000 up front, I’ll tell you the dudes involved, then you can give me the rest when they get caught.”
The second inmate testified that around the time of the murder, McDowell owed him money for crack cocaine he had given McDowell on credit. In the days following the murder, he says McDowell came to pay his debt and reportedly said, “See what you made me do?”
Still, McDowell’s dealer could not say with certainty whether McDowell was referring to the Wood Grill crime or to another incident 16 days prior to the murder on March 25, when McDowell robbed a man on Commonwealth Drive. McDowell was found guilty of that crime last year and is currently serving a seven-year sentence.
These stories were the only evidence the Commonwealth offered connecting McDowell to the scene of the crime and according to McDowell's attorney Lloyd Snook, the decision from Judge John Cullen to admit that testimony without holding a hearing over whether to allow the jury to hear it could be grounds for appeal.
"In some cases, the judge has to be a gatekeeper," Snook told reporters. "I felt under some relevant Virginia case law, the judge should have been required to assess the credibility of this jailhouse snitch stuff."
Casting doubt on these "jailhouse snitches" was the theme of Snook's closing argument, asserting that each could receive a reduced sentence for their crimes in exchange for testifying.
"Everyone in jail knows that your ticket home is, to use the vernacular, 'jumping on someone's case,'" said Snook. "When word gets around the jail that the police are pursuing a lead against Mr. McDowell, there's no incentive to say Mr. McDowell didn't do it."
Snook also focused on the fact that when Sandra Godsey called police in the early morning hours of April 12, minutes after the attack, she told police that the only skin she could see was on the assailant's cheek between a pair of sunglasses and a ski mask and that it appeared, according to the initial police report, "reddened, belonging to someone who is white or Hispanic." McDowell is African-American.
"It's like the girl who wakes up on Christmas morning, and she really wants a pony, and she gets excited because she sees a lot of horse manure," said Snook. "The Commonwealth's evidence needs whatever magic it takes to turn horse manure into a pony."
Prosecutor Casey did not address the skin color issue in his closing argument, except to say that McDowell often wore a matching red sweatsuit and do-rag and that given the ski mask, sunglasses, and gloves the assailant wore, he could have also "covered or painted" his face. What Casey did argue was that the stories from the six inmates who testified against McDowell matched up too closely to the truth to be the product of fabrication.
"How did they know that the lights had gone out? How did they know it was a woman who would be coming out with the deposit? " Casey asked the jury. "Where did they get these details that only someone who was there could have known?"
Casey also noted that several of his witnesses testified reluctantly without having been promised anything in return from the Commonwealth, including some who were coming at the end of their sentences.
"If it's such a great 'get-out-of-jail free card,' why isn't everyone doing it?" said Casey. "It's been said before, but snitches get stitches and end up in ditches. And now they all have to go back to jail where their lives are not going to be easier."
According to local defense attorney David Heilberg, guilty verdicts based on the testimony of inmates is not uncommon, but what is uncommon is a jury reaching a murder conviction without evidence tying the suspect at the scene and time of the crime.
"Most murder convictions are based on circumstantial evidence, since hardly anyone ever sees a murder happen," says Heilberg, "but I'm more used to seeing someone putting him there at the time, and we didn't have that in this case."
McDowell will learn of his ultimate fate on July 29 at 9:30am, when Judge Cullen will officially hand down his sentence. The jury recommended a sentence of 60 years. As a violent offender, McDowell will not be eligible for parole.
Sandra Godsey declined to comment to the Hook, but did testify during the sentencing phase.
"My husband was a great man, and my best friend," said Godsey, "and I'll never have him back."
–updated June 9 at 9:31am, original headline "Wood Grill murder suspect found guilty," portions of this post ran previously in the May 29 post "Inmates talk: Wood Grill trial enters day three"