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Davis v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

January 19, 2017




          PER CURIAM

         In 1996, petitioner Willie Gaster Davis, Jr. was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder, theft of property, and false imprisonment. He was sentenced to an aggregate term of life imprisonment. We affirmed. Davis v. State, 330 Ark. 76, 953 S.W.2d 559 (1997).

         In 2007, Davis filed in this court a pro se petition to reinvest jurisdiction in the trial court in the case to consider a petition for writ of error coram nobis. The petition was denied. Davis v. State, CR-97-401 (Ark. Jan. 31, 2008) (unpublished per curiam), reh'g denied. (Ark. Apr. 10, 2008).

         Now before us is Davis's second coram-nobis petition filed October 19, 2016. The petition for leave to proceed in the trial court is necessary because the trial court can entertain a petition for writ of error coram nobis after a judgment has been affirmed on appeal only after we grant permission. Newman v. State, 2009 Ark. 539, 354 S.W.3d 61. A writ of error coram nobis is an extraordinarily rare remedy. State v. Larimore, 341 Ark. 397, 17 S.W.3d 87 (2000). Coram-nobis proceedings are attended by a strong presumption that the judgment of conviction is valid. Id. The function of the writ is to secure relief from a judgment rendered while there existed some fact that would have prevented its rendition if it had been known to the trial court and which, through no negligence or fault of the defendant, was not brought forward before rendition of the judgment. Newman, 2009 Ark. 539, 354 S.W.3d 61. The petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a fundamental error of fact extrinsic to the record. Roberts v. State, 2013 Ark. 56, 425 S.W.3d 771.

         The writ is allowed only under compelling circumstances to achieve justice and to address errors of the most fundamental nature. Id. A writ of error coram nobis is available for addressing certain errors that are found in one of four categories: (1) insanity at the time of trial, (2) a coerced guilty plea, (3) material evidence withheld by the prosecutor, or (4) a third-party confession to the crime during the time between conviction and appeal. Howard v. State, 2012 Ark. 177, 403 S.W.3d 38.

         In his 2007 petition, Davis asserted a violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). A Brady violation is established when material evidence favorable to the defense is wrongfully withheld by the State. Pitts v. State, 336 Ark. 580, 986 S.W.2d 407 (1999) (per curiam). In Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263 (1999), the Supreme Court revisited Brady and declared that when the petitioner contends that material evidence was not disclosed to the defense, the petitioner must show that "there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Strickler, 527 U.S. at 280 (quoting United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 682 (1985)).

         In Strickler, the Court also set out the three elements of a true Brady violation: (1) the evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory, or because it is impeaching; (2) the evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently; and (3) prejudice must have ensued. Strickler, 527 U.S. 263; see Howard, 2012 Ark. 177, 403 S.W.3d 38. Impeachment evidence that is material, as well as exculpatory evidence, falls within the Brady rule. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667.

         The Brady violation alleged by Davis in the 2007 petition was his contention that certain evidence and a laboratory report had been withheld from the defense at his trial. The evidence concerned the absence of his hair on the victim or the lack of a match of hairs found on the victim to him. The report, by a fingerprint examiner, concerned fingerprints, or the lack of them, on the victim's keys. This court held that Davis had not established a Brady violation in that he had not asserted that the evidence at issue was withheld from the defense; he argued only that it had not been presented to the jury at trial or was never developed through testing. Also, Davis did not present facts to support his claim to satisfy the second element of a Brady violation. Moreover, even if withheld, the evidence that Davis portrayed as exculpatory would not have prevented the judgment had it been disclosed, considering the evidence adduced at trial and contained in Davis's own description of the events pertaining to the offenses. Davis, CR 97-401, slip op. at 2. We noted in the opinion declining to grant leave to proceed in the trial court with a coram-nobis petition that, if testing had failed to identify Davis's fingerprints or hair, or testing had shown the hairs or any fingerprints belonged to another individual, and that evidence had been presented to the jury, the evidence would not have served to raise a reasonable probability that the judgment of conviction would not have been rendered. Davis's having been in the car with the victim and his proximity to her at the house where her body was found were well established by the evidence, regardless of any contact the victim or her keys may have had with another person. The fact that someone else had handled the keys or had left hairs on the victim would not have implicated another person in the murder or cast any doubt on the inferences to be drawn from Davis's interactions with the victim as portrayed in the testimony. Davis, CR 97-401, slip op. at 2.

         In his second petition, Davis again contends that the State violated Brady. He reiterates some of the grounds considered by this court in the first petition. He also asserts that the State withheld seventeen cigarette butts collected at the crime scene and did not submit those cigarette butts for DNA testing and that the State's action constituted the withholding of information from the defense that persons other than he were at the crime scene. Davis points to testimony at trial that no lighted cigarettes were found at the scene to suggest that the cigarettes found at the scene were significant evidence.

         Davis further alleges that the State withheld hair-analysis evidence. Davis concedes that he presented this claim in his first petition to this court and that it was rejected as a ground for the writ. He argues that it should be considered again because he now has proof that the evidence was material and that he was prejudiced by the actions of the State. Davis alleges that he discovered the evidence when this court directed the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory to release certain information that Davis had requested pursuant to Arkansas Code Annotated section 12-12-312 (Repl. 2003). See Davis v. Deen, 2014 Ark. 313, at 3, 437 S.W.3d 694, 695.

         In its response to this second coram-nobis petition, the State argues that, although Davis may have acquired information as a result of his requests for written material in recent litigation, it does not excuse his delay of almost twenty years in seeking the information. The State further urges this court to dismiss the petition as an abuse of the writ because it is dubious that Davis could not have been aware, by examining the discovery information obtained at trial in 1996, that cigarette butts were collected at the scene at the same time the hairs were collected. The State contends that the claim concerning the cigarette butts could have been raised in Davis's first coram-nobis petition if he had been more diligent. The State also asserts that the totality of the evidence demonstrates that the outcome of the trial would not have been different had there been evidence introduced at trial that cigarette butts were collected at the crime scene because there was evidence that many people had been known to frequent the house where the victim's body was found.

         We do not find that Davis has established a Brady violation. Even if Davis had provided facts to show that there was evidence withheld by the State, and we cannot say that he has done so, he has not demonstrated with those facts that there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different had that evidence been available at trial. At most, Davis has suggested that the presence of multiple cigarette butts at the house would have shown that many people had been at the residence. As there was testimony that the house was in disarray, ...

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