TAMPA — For four years, the death penalty loomed over Keith Earl Davis as he awaited trial for the torturous 2016 slaying of William Leslie McGoff, a registered nurse who was found dead in a Tampa home.
On Monday, days before he was to face trial, the case ended quietly with a promise that Davis will die in prison, but not by execution.
In a last-minute deal with prosecutors, Davis, 47, quietly admitted that he killed McGoff. In exchange, the state dropped its pursuit of the death penalty, ensuring a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Davis also pleaded guilty to robbery and grand theft charges, receiving sentences of 30 and five years, respectively.
He offered no apology. His only words in the hourlong hearing were brief responses to standard questions from Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward about whether he understood the consequences of his guilty plea.
The plea punctuated a long-running case that was notable for being the first in which Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren had sought capital punishment upon taking office in January 2017.
Afterward, Warren said his office had been prepared to ask a jury to recommend death, and that he considered Davis’s case to be among “the worst of the worst.”
But he called the life sentence the right outcome, noting that it spares McGoff’s loved ones the emotional anguish of a trial, and possibly years of appeals.
“With today’s plea, we guarantee justice and accountability, and no appeals or technicalities can take that away,” Warren said.
McGoff’s sister and best friend both spoke of the pain the crime had inflicted, and the void it had left in the lives of so many people who loved him.
But they expressed little vengeance. Instead, their voices filled the courtroom with memories of a big man with a big heart.
Known as Leslie, McGoff was a registered nurse for three decades. He worked for LifePath Hospice when he died. He was a caregiver who liked to make people laugh, they said, and he used his humor to distract patients from their physical pain. He was known to dance with a mop — or a coworker.
A recovering addict, he’d achieved a full decade of sobriety and helped others in Narcotics Anonymous.
Mary Scannell, his best friend, said when she met him it was the first time she felt she wasn’t alone.
“Helping others feel included and safe was Leslie’s superpower,” she said.
He opened his home to the downtrodden — people who’d lost their homes and families to addiction, according to his sister, Mary Narmore.
He loved to cook and, at Thanksgiving, he prepared enough food to feed legions.
“He usually fed around 75 people a year at his own expense,” Narmore said. “Leslie’s life was cut short, and his death left so many things unfinished.”
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He lived alone in a house on Chariton Avenue in the Wellswood area of Tampa. Friends went there with Tampa police on Dec. 12, 2016, after he didn’t show up to work.
They found the home ransacked. They found McGoff’s body in a bedroom. He was nude. Hi, neck, wrists and ankles were bound with wire. Stab wounds marked his upper body. A pillowcase had been shoved in his throat.
His wallet, cellphone, and other items were missing. His car, a black 2013 Hyundai Sonata, was also gone.
Detectives reviewed his cellphone records and found one of the last phone numbers he’d connected with was one that belonged to Davis. Financial records revealed that McGoff’s credit card had been used to pay for gasoline in the days after his death at stations in northern Florida and Mississippi. Surveillance images from one store showed a person who resembled Davis pulling a black car up to a gas pump and getting out of the vehicle.
A woman described in court records as Davis’ ex-girlfriend told police he’d stayed at her home in the days before the killing, but Davis left on a bicycle the afternoon of Dec. 11. She later received a text message from his phone.
“I tried to rob someone and he bucked the robbery,” it read. “I had to stab him.”
The woman said Davis later came back to her home in a black car. He was crying, she said, and he told her McGoff was dead. He collected his belongings in a duffel bag and left again.
The car was found abandoned with an empty gas tank on Dec. 16, 2016, in east Texas. Police in nearby Sulphur, La., found and arrested Davis. His DNA and fingerprints were found in McGoff’s house and car.
Davis served multiple stints in state prison before he was accused of the slaying. His last release was almost exactly a year earlier, after serving four years for a series of theft-related convictions. His criminal history was one of several aggravating circumstances Warren’s office cited in pursuing the death penalty, along with the heinousness and cruelty of the killing, and the fact that it occurred during a robbery.
In court, Scannell opined that McGoff would have been forgiving.
“The one person whose life was so brutally taken is the same person who would be advocating for forgiveness for this butcher,” Scannell said in court.
With Davis’ case concluded, Warren’s office continues to seek the death penalty in six still-pending cases.
Warren’s office previously sought and secured a death sentence against Granville Ritchie, who was found guilty in the 2014 murder of 9-year-old Felecia Williams. They also sought the death penalty last month in the trial of Ronnie Oneal III, who was found guilty of the murders of his girlfriend and their daughter, but a jury recommended a life sentence.