Surprise guilty plea entered in murder trial
Faith Huffman | News-Telegram News Editor

August 1, 2005 - In what prosecutors considered an unexpected turn of events Monday morning, defendant Justin Heath Gafford plead guilty to the murder of his older brother, Frankie Mike Gafford, and to unauthorized use of his neighbor’s truck. Gafford then asked that 8th Judicial District Judge Robert Newsom assess punishment rather than a jury.

“Most all the issues he [the defendant] has in the defense of what happened are in the punishment phase,” defense attorney Frank Hughes of Greenville said Monday. “We felt Judge Newsom, because of his background in the legal system as an attorney and ... judge make it possible for him to make a fair decision.”

Following his plea, Justin Heath Gafford was returned to the county jail, where he has been held in lieu of bond since his arrest in November, according to District Attorney Martin Braddy. The 121 people called for possible jury duty were dismissed just before noon Monday.

The case, which was originally expected to take up eight days to try is now expected to last only three days and include witnesses for both the defense and prosecution as well as including an argument for temporary insanity.

Initially, a psychological evaluation was conducted on the defendant to determine whether he qualified for an insanity plea, which requires that a mental health professional find the defendant to have a mental disease or defect that prevents him from understanding the difference between right from wrong, Braddy explained.

That evaluation indicated that the Gafford was sane at the time, negating a total insanity defense. Braddy indicated that, based on that evaluation, the evidence will show that Justin Gafford’s actions were a secondary result of drug use, which is not considered a mental disease or defect.

The judge will be asked to consider a defense of temporary insanity by voluntary intoxication which resulted in the violent crime.

“Temporary insanity, particularly in this situation, with these facts goes toward punishment,” Hughes said. “It is an issue for the finder, the person finding punishment, the judge. We felt he is in a better position to weigh out a fair determination That’s one of the reason we decided to go to the judge for punishment.”

Braddy said he plans to argue using information obtained from the defendant during his mental evaluation, which includes records of past commitment for chemical dependency resulting in violence, will only strengthen the state’s argument for a tough punishment because it shows not only a history of violence, but that he will continue to represent a danger to society as a whole.

“Mental health records are normally protected, through the insanity evaluation we learned that he was involuntarily committed Terrell state hospital for his involvement in an incident which involved violence and drug use. ... In my view, that makes him dangerous and he will continue to use. I have no question he will continue to use methamphetamine. As a result of that people will be hurt by it,” Braddy said.

Hughes said that he anticipates the defendant taking the stand to defend himself and his actions due to the complexity of the legal issues at hand.

“Yes, I would be absolutely amazed if he does not. I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t. It will be not so much in defense of the actions but himself. Basically, that he is guilty of the deed but not of the crime,” Hughes said. “I anticipate that he will take the stand. This is a fairly complex legal issue.”

“We believe the evidence will prove the defendant is guilty and think [previous incidents] will have a big part in the judge’s decision. He has been arrested a number of times. He has some priors, but no felonies. It is our theory that the defendant was involved in drugs and a number of crimes have resulted over the past 10 years, which for the most part someone has gotten him of trouble each time,” Braddy said. “This is a tragic event that does not need to end with further tragedy for Frankie Mike Gafford.

Braddy said that he plans to use forensics evidence obtained by sheriff’s deputies and forensics experts, to further argue his case that the defendant receive a lengthy sentence.

“We believe that he is more dangerous than the every day person,” Braddy said. “The evidence will show he has had a long and extensive history of methamphetamine problems. When he is under the influence of meth, he would become paranoid and violent. We believe the murder directly resulted in violence that was some of the worst we have seen in about 20 years.”

The victim, 46-year-old Frankie Mike Gafford, was said to have what appeared to be a fatal puncture wound on his neck and at least two dozen other stab wounds to his body, investigators said immediately following the murder

Justin Heath Gafford, 32 at the time of his arrest, faces up to five to 99 years or life in prison and could be assessed a fine of up to $10,000 if convicted of the Nov. 1, 2004, murder of his 46-year-old brother Frankie Mike Gafford at a Brashear residence. He also faces 180 days to 2 years in jail for stealing his neighbor’s truck

The defendant was apprehended late Monday night, Nov. 1, 2004, following a vehicle pursuit which began on Interstate 30 in Hopkins County, continued through Franklin County and concluded 30 miles later in Titus County.

Frankie Mike Gafford’s body was found on the floor of Justin Heath’s County Road 1115 residence around 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 1, by Justin Heath and Frankie Mike’s brother. Officers were first made aware of the offense when a neighbor reported an altercation between Justin Heath and another older brother at the residence as a result of the discovery, investigators said.

The fight continued into the neighbor’s yard, where it was broken up. Justin Heath then took off in the neighbor’s pickup. Local law enforcement was alerted of the situation and began attempting to locate the vehicle, according to sheriff’s records.

At 10:19 p.m., Nov. 1, the stolen truck was spotted in Weaver headed east on I-30. Franklin County sheriff’s deputies initiated a pursuit, with Hopkins County sheriff’s officers and Texas Department of Public Safety officials following behind. The truck was stopped at 10:51 p.m. in Titus County and Justin Heath Gafford was taken in custody.

Justin Heath Gafford was charged with the first degree murder of his older brother that day. Charges were later filed against him for the unauthorized use of his neighbor’s pickup and for assault in connection with an altercation with his surviving brother.

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