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Stanton v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

April 27, 2017



          Debra J. Reece, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Kent Holt, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          JOSEPHINE LINKER HART, Associate Justice

         A jury found appellant, Marvin A. Stanton, guilty of first-degree murder, for which he received a sentence of life imprisonment, and of employing a firearm as a means of committing the murder, for which he received a sentence of fifteen years, with the sentences to run consecutively. On appeal, he contends that the circuit court erred by allowing the State to introduce character evidence to show that he acted in conformity with his character when he committed the crimes. We reverse Stanton's convictions and remand for a new trial.[1]

         On September 25, 2015, Stanton and the victim, Jesse Hamilton, confronted each other at a Raceway gas station in Texarkana, Arkansas. While the testimony of the State's witnesses differed significantly from Stanton's testimony regarding the circumstances, the parties agree that the confrontation escalated into a fight that ended when Stanton shot Hamilton with a handgun, causing his death.

         Before trial, Stanton moved to suppress any evidence regarding a 2007 incident that resulted in Stanton's arrest for aggravated assault. At a pretrial hearing, Eric Green, a patrol sergeant with the Hope Police Department, testified that in 2007 he investigated an alleged aggravated assault by Stanton. Green testified that there was a disagreement between Stanton and another person involving an unpaid bill. The other person followed Stanton to his home, and Stanton exited his vehicle with his firearm. Stanton denied making any threatening gestures or pointing the weapon at the person. Green testified that, based on his investigation, he concluded that there was no evidence that Stanton had committed a crime, and the charge was dropped. After the hearing, the circuit court issued a letter opinion in which it concluded that the evidence was inadmissible. Citing Rule 404(b) of the Arkansas Rules of Evidence, the court ruled that evidence of the use of a gun eight years earlier "did not meet any of the criteria for admission."

         At trial, Stanton took the stand in his own defense and asserted that he was justified in using deadly physical force against Hamilton. Before testifying about the circumstances surrounding Hamilton's death, however, Stanton testified about his personal history. He testified that he was born in Shaw, Mississippi, and graduated from high school in Cleveland, Mississippi. He testified that in 1985, when he was 18 years old, he joined the United States Marine Corps. He testified he was deployed during both Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was on active duty for eight years, and after he left active duty in 1991, was on inactive status for three and one-half years. He further testified that he would turn 50 years old in June 2016, that he is married to a pediatrician, and that he is the father of six and the grandfather of four. Stanton testified about his involvement in his wife's medical practice. He further testified that he is an EMT, performs volunteer work for a volunteer fire department, and runs a nonprofit, "Hope From Hope, " where they teach basic life support to nurses and EMTs for the American Heart Association. He also testified that he is licensed to carry a concealed handgun, is a concealed-carry-permit instructor, and is a "safety officer" for the National Rifle Association. He further testified that he is a member of the Rotary Club in Hope, Arkansas, and had been a member of the Juggernauts of Hope, a motorcycle club, but is now a member of the Juggernauts of Texarkana. He testified that he had left the Juggernauts of Hope because the national organization would not allow women in the organization to have the same status as men. He testified that he rejoined the Juggernauts, however, because he enjoyed nonprofit work or service work, and that it "was my way of giving back because I didn't have much when I was coming up." He testified, "[T]hat's kind of my way of giving all the years throughout my entire career, which I provided that to my lawyer here about all the awards, accommodations, and stuff that I've kind of managed to obtain here throughout the years, and still hasn't stopped to this day." He testified that he was the public-relations officer for the Juggernauts and that he participated in Toys for Tots, an event where motorcyclists brought in toys with the goal of filling a five-ton truck with the toys. He also testified about participating in, and raising money for, events for the homeless, where the homeless were given packets of food and toiletries.

         On cross-examination, the State asked Stanton whether he is a peaceful and law-abiding citizen. Stanton's counsel objected, asserting that Stanton had not testified regarding his peacefulness. The State advised the court that it intended to ask Stanton whether he had ever "pull[ed]" a gun on someone. The State also informed the court that it intended to ask Stanton whether he had ever hit anyone in the head. The court concluded that the State could "go forward now that [Stanton's] character has been placed into issue."

         During the State's cross-examination, Stanton testified that eight years ago he had pulled a gun to stop a threat. He testified that a man had approached him at his office in a threatening manner, that he got in his vehicle and left his office, and that the man followed him to his home and tried to drive him off the road. Stanton testified that when he arrived home, he pulled his gun, and the man left. The State further asked Stanton if he had ever hit a woman in the head. Stanton testified that he had slapped a woman before, which bloodied her nose. He testified that he struck her because she had "herpes on the corner of her mouth" and had spit in his face.

         On appeal, Stanton argues that the circuit court abused its discretion by allowing the State to cross-examine him on these two instances of prior misconduct. Stanton contends that the evidence submitted by the State was not admissible under Rule 404(b) of the Arkqnsas Rules of Evidence and was introduced solely to show that Stanton had a violent character, even though Stanton had not put his character for peacefulness at issue. Citing Rule 403 of the Arkansas Rules of Evidence, Stanton further contends the probative value of the evidence was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Also, Stanton asserts that his testimony regarding his background was relevant to facts in issue. Specifically, he noted that (1) the testimony regarding him being a Marine was relevant because he and the victim had voiced their respective military backgrounds during the confrontation and was also relevant to show that he believed Hamilton had physically confronted him by stepping on his toes, which Stanton testified is a military technique used to throw a person off balance; (2) the testimony regarding his charity work explained why he is in a motorcycle club; (3) the testimony that he is an EMT explained why he rendered aid to Hamilton after the shooting; (4) the testimony regarding his background with carrying a weapon was relevant to explain why he was in possession of a handgun and to show that he knew how to handle the handgun.

         In response, the State notes that prior to trial, the circuit court ruled that the evidence regarding Stanton's use of a handgun eight years earlier was inadmissible, and the State asserts that it complied with the ruling. The State, however, asserts that its compliance with the circuit court's pretrial ruling did not end the matter. The State concludes that "proof of bad character in the form of other crimes, wrongs, or acts, even when inadmissible under Rule 404(b), becomes admissible when a party opens the door by eliciting evidence of good character." The State contends that the evidence was admissible under Rule 404(a)(1) and Rule 405(a) of the Arkansas Rules of Evidence. The State asserts that because Stanton injected into the trial his character as a peaceful and law-abiding person, the State was entitled to rebut the evidence through cross-examination on relevant specific instances of Stanton's conduct.

         In reply, Stanton asserts that he did not put his character or reputation for peacefulness at issue. He thus concludes that the State could not rebut the evidence by questioning him about specific instances of his conduct relating to his peacefulness. He contends that his testimony was merely testimony about his background unrelated to his character for peacefulness.

         We agree with the circuit court's pretrial ruling that the testimony regarding Stanton's prior use of a gun was ...

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