Defendant takes murder guilty plea in 2012 Gonzales home invasion

In one night, a tearful Craig Godbold testified Tuesday, a robbery aimed at stealing a safe thought to contain gold and collectible coins changed everything for his family.

“In one night — in one night — my wife lost her whole family. In one night. Her mother, her brother and her stepdad,” said Godbold, commander of the Natchez, Mississippi, Police Department’s criminal investigations.

Godbold was staring straight at defendant Bernard James, 27, 36344 Lorena Drive, Prairieville. James is one of five men accused in the brazen Gonzales-area home invasion more than two years ago that led to the slaying of Godbold’s in-laws, Shirley and Robert Irwin Marchand, and their 50-year-old son, Douglas Dooley, of Cross Plains, Tennessee.

Since that February 2012 night, Godbold said, the joy in his wife Teresa Godbold’s voice is gone and she continues to live in fear.

The statement from Craig Godbold was part of the powerful drama that played out Tuesday at the Ascension Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales, where James became the second defendant in the slayings to plead guilty and accept life in prison to avoid a potential death sentence.

District Attorney Ricky Babin said afterward he was happy to have the second conviction for the Marchands’ and Dooley’s surviving relatives.

“The family is relieved,” Babin said.

Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies have said that 74-year-old Robert Marchand’s throat had been slashed, as had those of Shirley Marchand, 72, and Dooley on the night of Feb. 17, 2012. All three were severely beaten. The slayings inside the Marchands’ Babin Road home shocked residents living in the quiet corner of Ascension Parish.

James’ plea was finalized midafternoon Tuesday as prosecutors and defense attorneys were midway through preparations for jury selection on Wednesday. A lengthy trial was expected that would have included two of James’ co-defendants and his own cousins, Devon James and Travis Moore, testifying against him.

Prosecutors also have said in court papers that they found Bernard James’ DNA inside the stolen safe and on cigarette butts found in the vehicle used in the robbery and slayings, as well as cellphone records tying him to the scene. Hours before the plea was finalized Tuesday, Judge Alvin Turner Jr. rejected the defense attorney’s bid to throw out James’ confession to sheriff’s deputies.

James, who earlier had faced three first-degree murder charges, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder counts in Robert Marchand’s and Dooley’s deaths and to a second-degree murder charge in Shirley Marchand’s death.

Robert Marchand and Dooley were found dead at the scene on Feb. 18, 2012. Shirley Marchand died on March 2, 2012.

James entered the plea after Turner read out loud a lengthy description in the agreement of the events of Feb. 17, 2012.

The plea portrays James as having a role in the robbery’s planning — borrowing a Suburban from Devon James — as well as in the attacks on the Marchands and Dooley and the removal and later disposal of the safe in wooded part of Livingston Parish the next day.

The plea says James rushed the door while co-defendant Michael Aikens, the accused mastermind of the robbery, was talking to Robert Marchand, Aikens’ former employer.

The statement also describes the chaos of the night as Aikens and James worked together to subdue Robert Marchand and later Shirley Marchand and Dooley, one by one, as they each happened upon the intruders and unconscious family members.

James hit Robert Marchand and Dooley on the head with a two-by-four, though Aikens delivered the severe beatings on all three, the plea says.

The plea agreement does not say who slashed the family members’ throats after James and the other co-defendants left to put the unopened safe in the Suburban.

But while all the defendants were riding back to Devon James’ home to break open the safe, Aikens remarked: “Look at my knife; I still got skin on my knife.”

Aikens, who turns 38 Wednesday, pleaded guilty in October 2013 to three counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Judge Turner has sealed Aikens’ plea agreement.

Bernard James had given a statement to sheriff’s deputies in the case, describing seeing a bloodied Aikens standing near the Marchands’ house with a box cutter in his hand and three dead bodies on the floor, but that description was not part of the plea agreement entered Tuesday.

Once the factual basis was read, Turner asked James if he agreed with what the statement in the plea said.

“Yes, sir,” James said, and then he bowed his head.

Turner gave James three concurrent life sentences without the benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence.

Once the proceeding had ended and it was time for James to be led away, he resisted getting up from the defense counsel table and had to be handcuffed and handled by a group of deputies.

James’ attorneys and his gathered family members, some of whom were moved to tears during the victim impact statements, declined comment.

Devon James and Moore, who had agreed to testify, have not entered guilty pleas yet. Babin said his office will next pursue a case against co-defendant Rolando “Dody” Durrell Stewart, 24, 15379 Roy Rogers Road, Prairieville, who also is facing three counts of first-degree murder and a potential death penalty sentence.

“The family wants this to end, so we’re pushing as quickly as we can,” Babin said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.