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Hill v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

April 6, 2017



          PER CURIAM

         Petitioner Jessie E. Hill is incarcerated in the Arkansas Department of Correction pursuant to a judgment entered on September 18, 1995, in Grant County, which reflects a conviction for capital murder for which he was sentenced to life without parole. This court affirmed the judgment. Hill v. State, 325 Ark. 419, 931 S.W.2d 64 (1996). Hill was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder pursuant to a judgment of conviction entered in Ouachita County and was sentenced as a habitual offender to 720 months' imprisonment to be served consecutively to the life sentence. No appeal was taken from the Ouachita County judgment, as Hill's pro se motion to file a belated appeal was denied. Hill v. State, CR-96-710 (Ark. Nov. 4, 1996) (unpublished per curiam).

         Hill subsequently pursued multiple postconviction remedies without success, including two petitions for a writ of error coram nobis. Hill v. State, CR-96-270 (Ark. Mar. 13, 2008) (unpublished per curiam) (denying petition to reinvest jurisdiction in the Grant County Circuit Court to consider a petition for a writ of error coram nobis); Hill v. State, 2013 Ark. 383 (per curiam) (affirming denial of petition for a writ of error coram nobis by the Ouachita County Circuit Court).

         Now before this court is Hill's second petition to reinvest jurisdiction in the trial court to consider a writ of error coram nobis in the Grant County case. In his latest petition for the writ, Hill alleges that the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence with respect to the Grant County conviction for capital murder as well as in the Ouachita County conviction for first-degree murder.[1]

         We first note that a petition filed in this court for leave to proceed in the trial court where the judgment was entered is necessary after a judgment has been affirmed on appeal because, in that case, the trial court can entertain a petition for writ of error coram nobis only after we grant permission. Roberts v. State, 2013 Ark. 56, at 11, 425 S.W.3d 771, 778. Because there was no appeal from Hill's conviction in Ouachita County for first-degree murder, it is not necessary for Hill to obtain permission from this court to file a petition for a writ of error coram nobis in the Ouachita County Circuit Court. Thus, Hill's allegations pertaining to his conviction for first-degree murder in Ouachita County will not be considered or addressed by this court.

         As stated above, this is Hill's second petition for coram nobis relief with respect to his conviction for capital murder. In his first petition, Hill alleged that the prosecutor had withheld evidence and failed to disclose the identification of certain witnesses. We denied the petition primarily because Hill had failed to specifically identify what evidence had been allegedly withheld. Hill, CR-96-270, slip. op. at 1. In this second petition, Hill again alleges entitlement to coram nobis relief based on allegations that the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). In support of his claim, Hill elaborates on the allegations set forth in his first coram nobis petition and identifies the evidence that was allegedly withheld by the prosecutor and investigators.

         Before addressing Hill's allegations in support of his Brady claim, it is necessary to set forth a summary of the testimony and evidence adduced at Hill's trial that supported his conviction for capital murder. In so doing, this court takes judicial notice of the testimony and evidence contained in the record that was lodged in this court in connection with Hill's direct appeal. Davis v. State, 2013 Ark. 118, at 3 (per curiam).

         A review of the trial record reflects that Hill's accomplice, Demarcus Tatum, testified and described the events surrounding the crime. According to Tatum's testimony, Hill and Tatum went to the home of Donny Ray Moss on the evening of January 17, 1995, and asked to borrow a Nissan automobile owned by Donald Thrower. Thrower refused to let them borrow his car but agreed to allow his cousin, Arbrady Moss, to drive Hill and Tatum to the bus station in Camden. Tatum testified that while on route, Hill demanded that Moss give him the automobile, and, when Moss refused, Hill struck Moss in the head with a marble rolling pin that was found on the floorboard of the Nissan. After the initial assault, Moss was left in a roadside ditch, and Hill and Tatum drove away. However, after driving a short distance, Hill and Tatum returned to retrieve Moss and placed Moss in the Nissan's trunk. Thereafter, Hill and Tatum stopped to dispose of Moss's body on Cohen Trial in Grant County. When Moss was found to be still alive, Hill lifted Moss from the trunk and beat him with a glass juice bottle. Moss was left on the side of Cohen Trial, and Hill and Tatum decided to drive the car to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Nissan broke down near Adair, Oklahoma, where Hill and Tatum sold it to a local garage for $150.00. Hill and Tatum used the proceeds from the sale of the Nissan to buy bus tickets to Kansas City. Upon arriving in Kansas City, they had no money and no transportation, and they decided to steal a car. To this end, they assaulted and stabbed a woman near her car in a parking garage and took her purse and car keys. When a security guard in the parking garage came on the scene, Hill and Tatum ran back to the bus station, where they were apprehended.

         The testimony of Tatum was corroborated by the testimony of Bob Adams, the Sheriff of Grant County, who stated that Moss's body was found on January 19, 1995, two days after Moss was last seen in the company of Hill and Tatum. According to Sheriff Adams, the Nissan had been impounded in Oklahoma and searched. A considerable amount of blood was found in the trunk, together with a tooth similar to a tooth missing from Moss's body, a rolling pin that was covered with hair and with what appeared to be dried blood, and an ashtray that was also covered in blood. Crime-lab analysis revealed that blood on the rolling pin matched the victim's blood type and the ashtray contained Moss's bloody fingerprint. Witnesses employed at the garage in Oklahoma identified Hill and Tatum as the two men who sold the Nissan. The victim's brother testified that he last saw the victim leaving with Hill and Tatum to drive them to the Camden bus station. The medical examiner testified that Moss had died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head, and further stated that blows to the jaw had knocked out teeth from Moss's upper and lower jaw.

         Hill contends that he is entitled to coram nobis relief because the prosecutor withheld the following exculpatory evidence: (1) an August 28, 1995 report from the Arkansas Crime Laboratory that identified a latent fingerprint on the rolling pin, which could not be connected to either Hill or Tatum; (2) hairs collected from the Nissan, which included two Caucasian hairs, that did not match the victim's hair; (3) a handwritten investigative note dated January 23, 1995, that included a witness statement that Moss was last seen alive on January 12, 1995, rather than on January 17, 1995. Finally, Hill contends that the State collected blood, fluid, and fiber evidence that had not been subjected to forensic analysis, because investigators were determined to convict Hill for the crime and refused to develop evidence implicating other suspects.

         A writ of error coram nobis is an extraordinarily rare remedy. Howard v. State, 2012 Ark. 177, at 4, 403 S.W.3d 38, 42-43. 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 and which, through no negligence or fault of the defendant, was not brought forward before rendition of the judgment. Id. 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. We have held that 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.

         We are not required to accept the allegations in a petition for writ of error coram nobis at face value. Goff v. State, 2012 Ark. 68, at 3, 398 S.W.3d 896, 898 (per curiam). While allegations of a Brady violation fall within one of the four categories of fundamental error that this court has recognized, the fact that a petitioner alleges a Brady violation alone is not sufficient to provide a basis for error-coram-nobis relief. Stenhouse v. State, 2016 Ark. 295, at 3-4, 497 S.W.3d 679, 682 (per curiam). To establish a Brady violation, three elements are required: (1) the evidence at issue must be favorable to the accused, either because it is exculpatory or because it is impeaching; (2) that evidence must have been suppressed by the State, either willfully or inadvertently; (3) prejudice must have ensued. State v. Larimore, 341 Ark. 397, 404, 17 S.W.3d 87, 91 (2000). Furthermore, assuming that the alleged withheld evidence meets the requirements of a Brady violation and is both material and prejudicial, in order to justify issuance of the writ, the withheld material evidence must also be such as to have prevented rendition of the judgment had it been known at the time ...

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