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McArthur v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

April 6, 2017



          PER CURIAM

         Petitioner Steven Laron McArthur was found guilty in 1991 by a jury of capital murder in the death of Rodney Spence. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. We affirmed. McArthur v. State, 309 Ark. 196, 830 S.W.2d 842 (1992).

         McArthur has now filed in this court his second pro se petition to reinvest jurisdiction in the trial court to consider a writ of error coram nobis. 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. Roberts v. State, 2013 Ark. 56, at 11, 425 S.W.3d 771, 778.

         A writ of error coram nobis is an extraordinarily rare remedy. Id. Coram nobis proceedings are attended by a strong presumption that the judgment of conviction is valid. Id.; Westerman v. State, 2015 Ark. 69, at 4, 456 S.W.3d 374, 376. 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. Roberts, 2013 Ark. at 11, 425 S.W.3d at 778. The petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a fundamental error of fact extrinsic to the record. Id.

         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. Id.; Howard v. State, 2012 Ark. 177, 403 S.W.3d 38.

         Before addressing the allegations in McArthur's petition, a brief summary of the facts and evidence adduced at trial is necessary. On January 21, 1990, a hunter discovered the body of sixteen-year-old Rodney Spence in a ditch in north Lonoke County. Spence had been shot twice in the head at close range. Spence's father testified that on the afternoon of January 20, 1990, his son had left home to go to town, driving a 1986 red Ford Ranger, with the understanding that he would be home by 10:00 p.m. that night. Spence's uncle testified that he saw Spence at approximately 6:45 p.m., and Spence told him that he was going to Cabot, Arkansas. When Spence did not return home by 10:30 p.m., his parents became worried, and they reported him missing at 12:30 a.m. on January 21, 1990. Spence's body was discovered on the same day at approximately 1:00 p.m.

         On January 23, 1990, a Texas patrolman with the Plano Police Department pulled over a red Ford Ranger with Arkansas plates after hearing a national broadcast to be on the lookout for the vehicle. Donald Hawley, the driver of the truck, initially informed the Texas authorities that he and McArthur had been staying together in Cabot, Arkansas, the past weekend. Hawley told authorities that while the two were in Cabot, McArthur showed up driving the red truck and that the two of them decided to drive to Dallas and were staying with McArthur's sister, Robin. Hawley also informed police that a pistol was located in Robin's apartment in Dallas. The Plano police obtained and executed a search warrant for Robin's apartment, where they found a gun in a nightstand drawer. Thereafter, McArthur and Hawley were taken into custody.

         Hawley eventually pleaded guilty to capital murder and testified at McArthur's trial that McArthur had approached Spence in the parking lot of a grocery store in Cabot. According to Hawley, he and McArthur arranged for Spence to give them a ride to a liquor store and that Spence drove them to two liquor stores and a convenience store. When Spence went inside the convenience store, McArthur informed Hawley that he was going to persuade Spence to take them to a friend's house, and McArthur instructed Hawley to act sick when McArthur prompted him. Hawley further testified that the two planned to steal Spence's truck. McArthur directed Spence to a remote location whereupon McArthur told Spence that Hawley "looked sick." McArthur and Hawley got out of the truck on the passenger side and crouched by the truck. Spence also got out of the truck, and McArthur asked Spence for assistance in getting Hawley back in the truck. Hawley then stepped around the rear of the truck, aimed a gun at Spence, and instructed Spence to lie on the ground and empty his pockets. Hawley testified that McArthur said, "Well, shoot him, " and Hawley shot Spence in the head. The two men had begun to drag Spence's body when McArthur dropped the upper half of Spence's body and stated that Spence was still alive. According to Hawley, McArthur stated that he did not want to see Spence suffer, and McArthur fired a second shot into Spence's head. Hawley and McArthur left Spence's body in the ditch where it was eventually discovered. After killing Spence, Hawley and McArthur took Spence's truck and left for Dallas. McArthur, 309 Ark. at 199-200, 830 S.W.2d at 843- 44.

         At trial, the parties stipulated that the gun found in the nightstand drawer was the same weapon that was used to murder Spence, and McArthur testified at trial that the gun belonged to his father. McArthur testified on his own behalf and denied taking part in any plan to steal Spence's truck, and he denied taking part in the murder. McArthur testified that after murdering Spence, Hawley forced him to exit the truck and assist in moving Spence's body. McArthur's testimony was corroborated by a county-jail inmate who testified that he overheard Hawley admitting being the sole perpetrator of the crime. The jury found McArthur guilty of capital murder.

         In his first petition for coram nobis relief filed in this court, McArthur asserted that he had discovered new evidence that consisted of an undated letter from Hawley forwarded to McArthur's mother wherein Hawley admitted that he had lied about McArthur's firing the second shot and instead stated that he had been the only shooter. In addition, McArthur submitted a pretrial statement that Hawley had given to his attorney admitting that he had fired both gunshots. McArthur alleged that the prosecution withheld Hawley's pretrial statement from the defense in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). We denied the petition, concluding that McArthur had not established a Brady violation and otherwise failed to state sufficient grounds to justify coram nobis relief. McArthur v. State, 2014 Ark. 367, at 5-6, 439 S.W.3d 681, 685 (per curiam).

         In this second petition for coram nobis relief, McArthur sets forth eleven grounds for relief. McArthur asserts in his first five grounds for relief that new evidence has emerged demonstrating his actual innocence; that this new evidence was withheld by investigating officers; that Sheriff Isaac conspired to present false testimony; and that the prosecutors, Will Feland and Larry Cook, were guilty of prosecutorial misconduct. In support of the grounds for relief, McArthur presents an affidavit from his codefendant, Hawley, recanting his trial testimony and asserting that Sheriff Isaac and the prosecutors conspired to ensure that Hawley provided false testimony implicating McArthur in the murder despite Hawley's statements to the sheriff and the prosecutors that McArthur had not participated in a plan to steal Spence's truck and did not actively participate in Spence's murder.[1] Hawley further contradicts McArthur's own testimony and contends that the gun used in the murder did not belong to McArthur's father, but was a gun that Hawley had stolen from police and that the sheriff and the prosecutor manufactured evidence that he and McArthur had used this gun for target practice prior to the murder.

         McArthur further contends that he has discovered new evidence consisting of two additional affidavits from alleged witnesses to Spence's murder, Larry Stephens and Jackie Carlin.[2] Stephens and Carlin provide identical affidavits which state that they were attending a party in "a field located a few miles off highway 31 on Hefner Road" and approached a road where they had heard people engaged in an argument. Carlin and Stephens further assert that, while they could not clearly see the three individuals involved in this argument, they were able to observe one of the three shoot another in the group and then force the third person at gunpoint to move the body. According to Stephens and Carlin, they were interviewed the following day by Deputy Sheriff Larry Jones and provided statements consistent with the facts set forth in their affidavits. Based on the affidavits of Hawley and the two alleged witnesses, McArthur contends that investigators, acting in concert with the two prosecutors, suppressed exculpatory evidence provided by these witnesses and suborned perjury.

         The wrongful withholding of material exculpatory evidence from the defense is a violation of Brady and a ground for granting the writ. Noble v. State, 2015 Ark. 215, at 4, 462 S.W.3d 341, 345 (per curiam). Evidence is material if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Id. (quoting Strickler v. Greene, 527 U.S. 263, 280 (1999)). There are three elements of a 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; (3) prejudice must have ensued. Id. However, ...

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