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Sorry, you can't do that: Murder defendant loses bid to let judge impose death penalty if convicted

Judge Steve Sword took up Joel Guy's motion Wednesday morning.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — UPDATE: 11:30 AM WEDNESDAY: A Knox County judge turned back a murder defendant's offer Wednesday morning to let him impose the death penalty if convicted, noting the prosecution hadn't put that option on the table.

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Steve Sword told Joel Guy in a pre-trial hearing that legally only the state can pursue the death penalty in a murder case. And in Guy's case, they're not seeking it.

Last week, Guy filed an unusual handwritten motion in which he said he was willing to let Sword be the one to decide his punishment if he's convicted. That included death, life without parole or life.

Guy, 32, who is being held in the Knox County jail, told Sword he'd been researching the law and thought it was an open question.

The judge said Guy could make the offer, but he couldn't honor it. Guy's waiver has no practical legal effect because the prosecution controls the question of pursuing a defendant's execution, Sword said.

Guy nodded and appeared to accept what the judge said.

"You've gone as far as you can go," Sword said.

The Louisiana man is charged with plotting the murders of his parents, Joel Guy Sr. and Lisa Guy, in November 2016 at their West Knox County home. Prosecutor Leslie Nassios alleges the younger Guy was angry because his parents were cutting him off financially after years of support.

Credit: WBIR
Preparations are underway for Thursday's jury selection in the Joel Guy murder trial. Potential jurors will sit at the numbered spots.

The victims' body parts were found in various locations in the house: in two blue bins, on the floor of one room and in a cooking pot on the kitchen stove.

Guy hasn't conceded that he's the killer.

On Tuesday, his defense team filed a motion indicating Guy wanted to act as his own lawyer.

On Wednesday, Sword clarified -- and Guy agreed -- that the motion was only for the purpose of speaking with Sword regarding the question of a death penalty waiver.

Defense attorneys Jonathan Harwell, Mark Stephens and John Halstead will continue representing him -- at least for now.

Jury selection is set for Thursday in Sword's court. It's possible the panel will be picked by the end of the day.

Testimony is expected to start Monday.

Potential jurors already have filled on questionnaires about their knowledge of the case.

Court TV likely will carry the trial. WBIR will cover it next week.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, everyone including jurors will be spaced out in the courtroom. Everyone including the lawyers and defendant also must wear a face covering.

The judge is sitting behind a plastic screen on the bench.

Seating will be sharply limited in the courtroom.

Members of the Guy family are expected to attend.

PREVIOUS STORY: The Louisiana man accused of plotting and then carrying out his parents' murders in November 2016 wants to act as his own lawyer.

Defense attorneys filed the motion Tuesday on behalf of Joel M. Guy, 32.

The motion is the latest sign of what appears to be a behind-the-scenes legal struggle before jury selection starts Thursday in Knox County Criminal Court.

Last week, Guy filed a handwritten motion from jail telling Knox County Criminal Court Judge Steve Sword it was OK with him if the judge chose to impose death or life without a chance at parole should Guy be convicted at trial.

The prosecution is not seeking death in this case, although it features some of the aspects for which death could be sought.

Guy is represented by several veteran lawyers including former Knox County District Public Defender Mark Stephens, who is working for free. The lawyers have handled numerous first-degree murder and capital cases over the past 30 years.

Sword will hold a hearing in Guy's case Wednesday. A jury should be selected by Friday. Testimony is scheduled to begin Monday.

While their client is asking to be his own lawyer, the defense is continuing to act on his behalf. They filed a slew of motions Tuesday.

One asks that Guy's half-sisters be prohibited from offering testimony next week that the parents were ready to stop supporting Guy financially.

He'd been living for years in Baton Rouge, sometimes attending Louisiana State University. Parents Joel Guy Sr. and Lisa Guy originally lived in Louisiana before moving to the Knoxville area about 2007.

Authorities have said Guy killed his parents and dismembered them at least in part because they were cutting him off, selling their West Knox County home and moving to the Surgoinsville area.

The defense argues such testimony from the half sisters would be either speculation or hearsay on their part.

Defense attorneys also want to bar prosecutor Leslie Nassios from introducing emails at trial sent by Guy Sr. to his son in 2013 and 2014.

Those emails may contain statements from the father that Guy had failed to get a college degree despite their help, had been in legal trouble at LSU and that the parents had taken out a mortgage "to cover that legal difficulty," records state.

Such statements would be hearsay and highly prejudicial, the defense notes.

Guy has been held in the Knox County jail since his arrest.

Knox County authorities found the victims and various body parts throughout the house Nov. 28, 2016. There was obvious evidence of a struggle and violence in at least two rooms, testimony has shown.

Someone put Lisa Guy's head in a pot cooking on the stove, according to the prosecution. Joel Guy Sr.'s hands were found on the floor in a room, with multiple cut marks where he'd tried to defend himself.

Guy, who'd been staying at the house for Thanksgiving, wasn't there. He'd driven back to Baton Rouge the day before, leaving behind a backpack, laptop and his dog, locked in a room in the house with the thermostat set in the 90s.

Authorities think he killed his parents Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, and set about cutting them up and trying to dispose of their bodies with chemicals.

Sometime during the crime, the state says, he suffered cuts to his hands that he ended up getting treatment for after driving back to Baton Rouge.

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