Friday, June 20, 2014

TOP STORY >> Verdict pleases victim’s mother

Leader senior staff writer

Moments after Circuit Judge Herbert T. Wright found her guilty of first-degree murder Wednesday in the ball-bat beating death of James Heath, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence, Rene Joyce Rollf whimpered in a tight huddle with her defense team, saying, “I didn’t do it.”

Later, in the momentary embrace of her family, Rollf’s sobs echoed through the halls of the cavernous Pulaski County Courthouse as deputies escorted her from the courtroom back to the Detention Center to await a pre-sentencing report and sentencing Aug. 5.

First-degree murder is punishable by 10 to 40 years or life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving 70 percent of that time. Abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence each is punishable by prison terms of up to six years.

Heath’s mother smiled after the verdict and said she was satisfied.

“Justice was done,” said Deputy Prosecutor Barbara Mariani. “The judge heard the evidence, and I’m just happy the family got a little closure.”

Rollf waived her right to a jury trial, so Wright was both judge and jury in this two-day bench trial.

Mariani said the prosecution had been open to a negotiated plea, but that Rollf never responded.

Before the trial, Rollf underwent a mental evaluation to determine her competency to stand trial and to aid in her defense.

She was found to be malingering, suffering from a personality disorder and to have borderline intellectual functioning, perhaps from long-term drug use, Mariani said Friday morning after being asked about the mental evaluation.

Defense attorney Patrick Benca said the determination on whether or not to appeal the convictions would be made after sentencing.

Two codefendants, both of whom accepted plea bargains in exchange for their testimony, and an eyewitness who was not charged with any crime painted a picture of Rollf, in a methamphetamine-fueled rage, bludgeoning Heath with an aluminum T-ball bat, a wooden cane and her fists and trying to choke and gouge his eyes out while straddling him in the narrow hallway of her trailer in the predawn hours of Sept. 15.

Testifying in a prison jumpsuit, handcuffs and leg chains, John Posey, 37, said that, with Heath on the floor, Rollf then “picks up the bat and swings it down like spitting wood.”

Posey is serving 37 years for second-degree murder and abuse of a corpse.

Posey, Taylor (Fat Boy) Arnold, 22, and Justine Gainey testified that Rollf was angry, that she considered Heath a snitch and that, after he was apparently dead, she directed them and others to move the body and put it in a depression in the ground behind her trailer.

They said she ordered them to clean up the blood and burn Heath’s and their own bloody clothes.

Rollf threatened them, they said, telling them, “This is what happens to snitches.”

All three testified they were afraid of her.

Arnold is free after his testimony. He was not in the Pulaski County Jail on Friday.

Rollf’s attorney attacked the conclusion of state Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Kokes that the cause of death was a blow to the head from a cylindrical object not inconsistent with the bat. It was introduced by Mariani as the murder weapon.

In an attempt to create doubt that Rollf committed the murder, Benca presented evidence apparently intended to deflect blame toward Arnold, a former welding student.

The defense attorney suggesting the actual cause of death was a blow to the head from a welder’s small ballpeen hammer.

Robert Robbins, a Jacksonville resident and a former high school friend of Arnold’s, said Arnold in a panic turned up the car radio and talked about the murder.

Robbins said Arnold might have said the weapon was the hammer and that it was in the back of his red truck.

Robbins said he wasn’t sure Arnold said “ballpeen hammer.”

The defense rested after calling two witnesses, Robbins and Rollf’s mother, Delores Beasley, who testified that the hole Heath was found in was dug years ago for use in a children’s birthday party game.

Benca made impressions in a small ball of Play-doh, trying to get Dr. Kokes to say that the ballpeen hammer could have made the injury that drove the skull into Heath’s brain. But Kokes disagreed.

Citing testimony that Posey’s wife, Jody Posey, stood on Heath’s neck after he appeared to be dead, and reportedly said “I felt him take his last breath,” Benca also suggested that she was responsible for his death.

Both sides had sought to talk further with Jody Posey, but could not find her, they told the judge.