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Isom v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

May 21, 2015



Jenniffer Horan, Federal Defender, by: Julie Vandiver and Scott W. Braden, Ass't Federal Defenders, for appellant.

Dustin McDaniel, Att'y Gen., by: Kent G. Holt, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

JOSEPHINE LINKER HART, Associate Justice. HANNAH, C.J., and DANIELSON and GOODSON, JJ., dissent. HANNAH, C.J., and GOODSON, J., join.


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A jury found Kenneth Isom guilty of capital murder, aggravated robbery, residential burglary, attempted capital murder, and two counts of rape and sentenced him, respectively, to sentences of death, life imprisonment, 40 years' imprisonment, 60 years' imprisonment, and life on each count of rape, with the sentences to be served consecutively. This court affirmed his convictions and sentences. Isom v. State, 356 Ark. 156, 148 S.W.3d 257 (2004). Isom further sought postconviction relief under Arkansas Rule of Criminal Procedure 37.5, and this court affirmed the circuit court's denial of his petition. Isom v. State, 2010 Ark. 495, 370 S.W.3d 491. Isom now petitions this court to reinvest jurisdiction in the trial court to consider a petition for writ of error coram nobis. We grant his petition to reinvest jurisdiction.

The proper standard of review for granting permission to reinvest jurisdiction in the circuit court to pursue a writ of error coram nobis is whether it appears that the proposed attack on the judgment is meritorious. Howard v. State, 2012 Ark. 177, at 4-5, 403 S.W.3d 38, 43. In making such a determination, we look to the reasonableness of the allegations of the petition and to the existence of the probability of the truth thereof. Id., 403 S.W.3d at 43. A writ of error coram nobis is available to address certain fundamental errors extrinsic to the record, such as material evidence withheld by the prosecutor. Id. at 4, 403 S.W.3d at 42-43. To establish a violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963) by the State's withholding of evidence, the evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching; the evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently; prejudice must have ensued. Id. at 8, 403 S.W.3d at 44.

Isom was convicted of killing Bill Burton and attempting to kill Dorothy Lawson, and of committing two counts of rape against Lawson, aggravated robbery, and residential burglary, based on an incident at Burton's trailer on April 2, 2001. Lawson, who was 72, was at Burton's home with Burton, who was 79. Burton had recently had hip surgery, and Lawson was there to care for him. Lawson testified that she opened the door that evening to a man she had seen next door earlier that day. Lawson identified Isom as the man who pushed passed her and demanded money from Burton. Burton gave him some money, but Isom was not satisfied and pulled a pair of broken scissors from his pocket. Lawson testified that Isom had her remove her clothes, raped her vaginally and anally and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Lawson testified that he forced her into a closet and that when she looked out she saw Isom standing on Burton's head. Lawson fought with Isom in an attempt to prevent him from hurting Burton, and she cut her hand on the scissors in the process. Lawson was knocked unconscious, choked, and she

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eventually passed out. A neighbor found her the next morning, bleeding, partially paralyzed, and crying for help.

At the hospital, the doctor performing the rape-kit examination found a hair in Lawson's vaginal opening. Analysis of that hair excluded Lawson or Burton as DNA contributors. The analysis also determined that a DNA sample from Isom had bands that were not inconsistent with those in the hair's DNA. The original analysis determined the likelihood of finding another person with the same consistent DNA bands was 1 in 57,000,000 in the African-American population. The additional testing conducted postconviction established the likelihood of finding another person with the same consistent DNA bands was 1 in 580,000 for a nonrelative. On April 5, 2001, an officer visited with Lawson in the hospital to see if she could identify her assailant from a photographic lineup. After first focusing on photographs one and three, she selected photo three, which was Mr. Isom.

In addition to Lawson's testimony at trial, Ken Ouellette testified that he drove by the Burton residence at about 7:00 p.m. on April 2, 2001. He saw Lawson and a gentleman he later identified as Isom talking in front of the house next door to Burton's. Linda Kay Johnson, who lived across the street, testified that she knew Isom, had seen him at the house next door to Burton's on previous occasions, and had seen him talking to Lawson some time before 7:00 p.m. on April 2, 2001.

In his petition and an attached proposed petition for filing in the trial court, Isom sets out a number of proposed grounds for the writ based on various claims that the prosecution withheld evidence. The grounds proposed are as follows: (1) the State suppressed evidence that Lawson did not identify Isom as her attacker in a photo array shown to her on April 4, 2001; (2) the State suppressed evidence that Lawson failed to identify Isom in a photo array shown to her on April 5, 2001; (3) the State suppressed Rick McKelvey's investigative notes about the interviews of Lawson while she was in the hospital; (4) the prosecution failed to correct false testimony when Lawson testified that she was not on pain medication while in the hospital and that she did not attempt to make an identification without her glasses; (5) the State suppressed evidence that Ouellette was aware that Isom was the main suspect before identifying him; (6) the State suppressed evidence that Ouellette had a motive to curry favor with the police department; (7) the State suppressed evidence concerning the DNA evidence by turning over illegible copies of documents and incomplete copies of the gel strips or DNA ladders; (8) the State suppressed evidence of alternative suspects.

We focus on Isom's last claim, which is that the State withheld evidence that might have led counsel to utilize a defense based on an alternate suspect. Prior to trial, Isom's attorneys had notified the prosecution that they planned to call as witnesses a number of the prosecutors involved in the case, and, as a result, there was a pretrial hearing on a motion to quash the subpoenas. Deputy Prosecutor Frank Spain testified during that hearing concerning potential evidence from Kevin Green. The defense was aware of some letters written by inmates who claimed that, while he was incarcerated, Green had said that he smoked crack with Jerry Avery and that Avery had told Green that he committed the Burton murder. Green, according to the inmates' letters, ...

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