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Dennis v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

November 17, 2016




          Tinsley & Youngdahl, PLLC, by: Jordan B. Tinsley, for appellant.

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

          COURTNEY HUDSON GOODSON, Associate Justice

         A jury in the Pulaski County Circuit Court found appellant Darrell Napoleon Dennis guilty of capital murder, two counts of aggravated robbery, and two counts of kidnapping. Because the State did not seek the death penalty for the crime of capital murder, Dennis automatically received a sentence of life in prison without parole for that conviction. Upon his election to forgo sentencing by the jury, the circuit court sentenced him as an habitual offender to concurrent terms of life in prison for the remaining offenses. For reversal, Dennis contends that certain rulings made by the circuit court denied him the right to self-representation; the right of confrontation; and the right to the assistance of counsel. We affirm.

         I. Factual Background

         Our review of the record reflects that during the early morning hours of May 10, 2013, Forrest Abrams drove his red Chevrolet Tracker to the Golden Foods store located at 12th and Woodrow Streets in Little Rock so that Tyler Hodges could purchase cigarettes. On the parking lot, Hodges encountered a man whom he did not know and who asked Hodges for money. After buying the cigarettes, Hodges returned to Abrams's vehicle and entered the back seat. The man who had asked Hodges for money spoke with Abrams and then got into the front passenger seat of the Tracker. Abrams drove out of the parking lot and engaged in a conversation with the man about purchasing drugs. Not long thereafter, the man pointed a gun at Abrams and demanded that Abrams change places with him in the vehicle. Abrams complied, and the man drove the Tracker to a place on a street where they were met by two young black males. The men confiscated Abrams's and Hodges's wallets and forced them into another vehicle.

         The man encountered at the Golden Foods store drove this second vehicle to a bank where he tried, unsuccessfully, to use Hodges's debit cards in the ATM. According to Hodges, the man became "very mad"; to placate him, Hodges told the man that he had money at his cousin's house on Booker Street. When they arrived at that location, the man told Hodges that he was holding Abrams as "collateral" and that he would kill Abrams if there was any "funny stuff." One of the younger males escorted Hodges at gunpoint to the front door of the home. When his cousin came to the door, Hodges managed to escape by quickly going inside the house. Hodges called 911 to report what had occurred.

         Officer Eddie Seaton of the Little Rock Police Department responded to a call at 5:05 a.m. alerting of shots fired and a "man down" on the roadway at 11th and Woodrow Streets. There, he found Abrams, who was deceased, having been shot four times in the back. Officer Kelly Lapore located Abrams's red Tracker at 8:30 a.m. at the intersection of Abigail and Charles Bussey Streets. The cover for the gas tank was open, and a nozzle from a gas can was inserted into the tank. Officers found a gas can nearby. Inside the Tracker, officers also discovered a note pad that had the word "Red" written on it along with a phone number.[1]

         Detective Tommy Hudson investigated the homicide. Based on information provided by Hodges, he obtained still photographs from the bank taken at the ATM during the transactions involving Hodges's debit cards, which occurred at 4:36 a.m. The photos captured a vehicle, a tan Geo Prizm, as well as the driver of the car. From the photographs, Hodges identified the driver as the man from Golden Foods who had held him and Abrams at gunpoint and had kidnapped them. Hudson disseminated photographs of the driver throughout the police department. He later received information from another officer that a confidential informant had identified Dennis as the driver of the Prizm. Hudson subsequently prepared a photographic spread for Hodges to view. Hodges selected Dennis's photograph from the array.

         The police located the Geo Prizm on May 22, 2013. This vehicle belonged to Edgar Brown, a homeless man who routinely slept in the car on an empty lot at the corner of 24th and Maple Streets. Edgar told Hudson that he was awakened on the morning of May 10, 2013, by two young black males. The males, whom he did not recognize, informed him that "Red" had run out of gasoline on Abigail Street, and they asked Brown to take fuel to "Red." Brown stated that he drove to that street and that he saw two white males in a vehicle with "Red." When he was walking to the vehicle, a red Tracker, he saw that one of the white men, referring to Hodges, appeared to be frightened. Brown said that as he was putting gas in the tank, "Red" got into the driver's seat of the Prizm. Brown protested, and as he approached his vehicle, someone struck him in the head from behind. Brown ran away, but two young men caught up with him and demanded at gunpoint that he turn over the key to the Prizm. Brown threw the key and ran. He said that "Red" returned the Prizm to him later that morning at the empty lot. Hudson also showed Brown a photo array, and Brown selected the photo of Dennis as the man, whom he knew as "Red, " who had taken his car.

         Based on the investigation, the police arrested Dennis on May 23. On June 5, 2013, Alvin Cooper, a long-time informant, contacted Hudson. Cooper advised Hudson that he was on the parking lot of the Golden Foods store purchasing gas for his Suburban the morning of the abduction and that he saw there an acquaintance of his named "Red." Hudson showed Cooper a photo lineup, and Cooper chose the photo of Dennis as the man whom he knew as "Red." Hudson had also obtained videos from the store. The videos were of poor quality and "jumped around" from frame to frame. During his testimony about the video footage, Hudson stated that he could not confirm that anyone got into the Tracker and that he could not say whether someone did not. However, the video placed Abrams's Tracker and Cooper's Suburban at the store during the same time frame.

         Cooper died before the trial. The prosecution moved to admit Cooper's testimony from the pretrial hearing on Dennis's motion to suppress the results of the photographic lineup viewed by Cooper. The circuit court granted that request over Dennis's objection, and a transcript of Cooper's testimony from the hearing was read to the jury. Essentially, Cooper testified that he saw Dennis on the parking lot standing by the passenger side of a Tracker and that he called out to him but that Dennis did not respond. He also acknowledged that he had been paid for providing this information to the police. Before the jury, the parties stipulated that Cooper had previous convictions of possession of cocaine; two counts of hot-check violations; theft of property; and felon in possession of a firearm.

         At the trial, the State also offered the testimony of Sylvester Williams. Williams had been in the Pulaski County jail with Dennis, and Williams testified that Dennis told him that he was going to beat the charges due to lack of evidence because the camera from the store did not reflect his presence. Williams also testified that Dennis expressed regret for not killing the other victim.

         II. Self-Representation

         On appeal, Dennis first argues that the circuit court deprived him of his state and federal constitutional rights to self-representation. Dennis contends that he unequivocally invoked this right at a hearing on April 10, 2014, when he stated to the court, "Yes, sir, as of right now, I'm invoking my right to represent myself. I won't be needing Mr. James anymore on my case." He also asserts that a mental evaluation ordered by the circuit court demonstrated that he was competent and without mental disease or defect, and he argues that the circuit court at a subsequent hearing focused on the "irrelevant concerns" of his limited educational background and his lack of legal experience and training in denying his request to proceed pro se. In response, the State contends that Dennis did not unequivocally invoke the right of self-representation.

         The record reveals that a series of appointed attorneys represented Dennis over the course of the proceedings. Initially, Julia Jackson and Thomas Devine provided assistance as counsel. For reasons discussed later in this opinion, the circuit court relieved them in December 2013 upon Dennis's motion. William James next undertook the representation of Dennis. In April 2014, Dennis filed a pro se motion seeking the removal of James. The circuit court held a hearing on this motion on April 10, 2014. As Dennis points out, he did inform the circuit court at the hearing that he was invoking the right to represent himself in ...

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