News and Tribune

November 4, 2013

Floyd County prosecutor discusses Gibson trial

Keith Henderson reflects on death sentence verdict, looks ahead to upcoming Gibson trials


NEW ALBANY — For Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson, the recent trial of William Clyde Gibson III was a complete success.

The jury deliberated on three different matters over six days of proceedings and each time returned a ruling in the prosecutor’s favor.

Gibson, 56, was first found guilty of the murder of Christine Whitis, a 75-year-old Clarksville woman, after 17 minutes of deliberation. Three days later, the jury recommended a death sentence, even though defense attorneys argued for life in prison without parole or a designated number of years in prison. The following day, jurors found Gibson guilty as a habitual offender.

Henderson took time Thursday, the day after proceedings had been completed, to talk openly about the case, including his plans to show Gibson is guilty in the murders of two other women, one of which he is seeking a second death penalty for committing.

“First and foremost, I am very pleased for the Whitis family, that they were able to see justice served on behalf of their mother, grandmother, sister and friend. That is first,” Henderson said while seated in the conference room of the prosecutor’s office on the second story of the City/County Building in New Albany.

During breaks in the trial and after proceedings had been adjourned for the day, Henderson, his Chief Deputy Prosecutor Steve Owen and other members of his staff offered comfort and answered questions of a group of nearly 15 of Whitis’ loved ones who attended the trial each day.

“We get to know the families fairly well, especially in a death penalty case,” Henderson said. “It is important to have the communication.”

He said the relationship between members of his office and the victim’s family can begin long before a trial does.

More than 18 months went by after Whitis was found dead in the attached garage of Gibson’s home in 2012 and when the family watched a jury recommend he be put to death by lethal injection.

“We reach out to the victim’s family sometime after that initial grieving process to start explaining that road we are going down, the legal process, which can be complex and confusing at times, and to prepare them for what is going to take place,” Henderson said.

He said the community is better off from Gibson’s due process resulting in the New Albany man being removed from the area and locked behind bars and possibly put to death.

“This was justice for the community,” Henderson said. “Such an egregious crime calls for an equal response, and under our system of justice, this was the ultimate and appropriate punishment, as the jury saw it.”

He said the community can be pleased that the work of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and a jury of 12 people from Dearborn County held Gibson accountable for the slaying and sexual battery of Whitis.

“That is our system of justice — a citizen jury. That decision was made by 12 citizens of this state, and I think that is what is remarkable about our system of justice,” Henderson said. “It doesn’t bring back the victims, herein Mrs. Whitis, but it does speak to our rule of law that someone who goes so far beyond those bounds is going to be held accountable.”

A week before the trial began in the Floyd County court, Henderson and his team went to Dearborn County in southeastern Indiana, located outside of Cincinnati, during the jury selection process to form an unbiased jury from outside the reach of local media’s coverage of the accused serial killer.

“We are very grateful to the people of Dearborn County, who allowed us to go up there for a week and inconvenience a lot of people — 300 people — [who made up the jury pool],” Henderson said.

“These 16 individuals [jury and alternates] came down and were, basically, almost put in jail, if you will, themselves, as they were very limited in their freedoms for a period of 10 days.”

The day after recommending the death sentence, the jury returned to the courtroom, and upon hearing arguments from the state and defense, ruled Gibson was a habitual felon.

For Henderson, getting the habitual felon charge is a well-received insurance if the case or sentencing is later overruled by a state or federal court.

“We already had the jury there, and if for some reason the case did come back for a new sentence, then I don’t believe we could reconvene a new jury to hear only the habitual offender [charge],” Henderson said. “It was more ... to finish procedurally what we had filed to clean that up and finish it. And, secondly, as a insurance policy on the term of years. I thought it was worth spending an extra couple of hours on this while we had them here.”

If the conviction or sentencing is overturned, and Gibson is sentenced somewhere in the 45 to 65 years of punishment, the habitual charge can enhance the term by 10 to 30 years.

While Henderson argued to get the habitual offender conviction, he said he is confident Gibson’s conviction will not be reversed by a higher court.

Henderson is now looking ahead to prosecuting Gibson next year in another capital case for the murder of 35-year-old Charlestown woman Stephanie Kirk, whose body was found in Gibson’s backyard in April 2012, only days after Whitis’ remains were discovered.

Henderson plans to then try Gibson in a non-capital case for Karen Hodella, 46, whose remains were found nearly 10 years ago near the Ohio River.

Some might think it a waste of tax dollars or even senseless to go to trial to convict a man already on death row, but Henderson doesn’t see it that way.

“The charges with both of those cases ... they stand on their own. Their deaths, their murders are equally important as Mrs. Whitis’,” he said. “Someone who commits those kinds of acts doesn’t get a free pass.”

Gibson has been returned to the Indiana Department of Correction and is expected to return to Floyd County for his sentencing hearing Nov. 26.