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Nichols v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

June 18, 2015

MATTHEW W. NICHOLS, APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS, APPELLEE

APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. NO. CR13-2206. HONORABLE WENDELL GRIFFEN, JUDGE.

Bret Qualls and Lott Rolfe IV, Deputy Public Defenders, by: Clint Miller, Deputy Public Defender, for appellant.

Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Brad Newman, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

OPINION

Page 847

JOSEPHINE LINKER HART, Associate Justice.

A Pulaski County jury convicted Matthew W. Nichols of capital murder in the death of Jesse McFadden. The State waived the death penalty and Nichols was sentenced as a habitual offender by the court to life without parole to be served in the Arkansas Department of Correction. His sole argument on appeal is that the circuit court abused its discretion by refusing to give his proffered, nonmodel jury instruction concerning the transition from capital murder to first-degree murder if a juror has reasonable doubt of guilt on the greater charge. Our jurisdiction is pursuant to Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 1-2(a)(2) (2013). We affirm.

At the trial on August 25, 2014, North Little Rock police officer Jeffrey Elenbaas testified that on May 20, 2013, he was dispatched to 219 Waters Street in North Little Rock. He believed he was responding to a residential fire, to assist the firefighters. However, while he was waiting for the fire department, he was waved toward the driveway of the residence by a man whom he would subsequently learn was Nichols. There he found a nude woman who had been severely burned, " basically lying in a heap in the driveway." According to Elenbaas, " her skin was completely burned off," but she was still alive.

Elenbaas further testified that Nichols approached him asking for permission to sit in the back seat of the patrol car because there had been what Nichols described as a " family disturbance." He allowed Nichols to sit in the car, with the door open. According to Elenbaas, there was nothing " real striking" about Nichols, but he did detect the smell of gasoline. While Elenbaas was attending to the victim, Nichols left the police car and started walking down an adjacent street. Meanwhile, bystanders approached Elenbaas and disclosed Nichols's involvement with the burned woman. He went after Nichols and took him into custody.

Franklin Hinton, a 15-year acquaintance of the victim, testified that Nichols and McFadden lived together at the Waters Street house. On the day of the murder, he had driven Nichols to an auto-salvage yard, returned with him to the residence, and was drinking a beer while watching Nichols install a brake caliper on his truck. According to Hinton, Nichols had been

Page 848

drinking also but was not intoxicated. Nichols tried to talk to him about his relationship with McFadden, telling him that he thought that McFadden was cheating on him. Hinton claimed that he fended off the discussion, telling Nichols that it was not his business.

Eventually, McFadden arrived. Hinton described her demeanor as " happy going." Nichols told him to wait for him while he went into the house to talk to " my lady." An argument ensued between McFadden and Nichols. Nichols took her telephone, and Hinton tried unsuccessfully to retrieve it for her when Nichols came outside. Nichols went back into the house, and Hinton decided to leave.

As he walked back to his vehicle, he heard McFadden screaming. He returned to the house because he thought Nichols was beating McFadden. He discovered that the screen door was locked. Unable to see what was going on, he looked into the house from a window. According to Hinton, he saw Nichols dumping gasoline onto McFadden, and " all of a sudden, the whole living room lit up." He yelled at Nichols, but got no response. He saw Nichols steadily pouring gasoline onto McFadden. Hinton stated that he could not understand why the burning gasoline was not flashing back into the gas can. When McFadden fell against the window where he was watching, he recoiled in horror and fell off the porch. He ran from the scene and went straight home. Hinton stated that he did not call the police until the next day.

North Little Rock Detective John Alston testified that he photographed the 219 Waters Street home after McFadden had died of her injuries. He showed the jury a diagram, noting that a five-gallon gas can was found just inside the front door. He described the gas can as red, with the top black and charred. He stated that there were also burn marks on the floor near the front door. Detective Alston then ...


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