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Thornton v. State

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

January 24, 2018



          Willard Proctor, Jr., P.A., by: Willard Proctor, Jr., for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Brooke Jackson Gasaway, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.


         Calvin Thornton was charged as a habitual offender with capital murder and aggravated robbery. He was ultimately convicted by a Pulaski County jury of aggravated robbery and the lesser-included offense of first-degree murder and was sentenced to fifty years in the Arkansas Department of Correction.[1] He appeals his convictions, alleging that the trial court erred in denying his motions for a mistrial and that there was insufficient evidence to support his first-degree-murder conviction. We affirm.

         On July 8, 2015, Fred Pohnka was found beaten to death in his home. He was discovered by two coworkers after he had failed to arrive at work as a security guard at Regions Bank in Little Rock, Arkansas. The house had been ransacked. The Little Rock Police Department (LRPD) investigated Pohnka's death. They obtained a surveillance video[2]from a seminary across the street from Pohnka's house that showed two men and two women entering and exiting Pohnka's home on the day of the murder. The two women arrived first in a red vehicle, and they parked in front of Pohnka's home. They exited the vehicle and entered the residence. About fourteen minutes later, a gray or silver car parked near the home, and two men approached the house. Shortly thereafter, the two women exited the residence and got back in their car. One of the women reentered the residence, quickly exited again, and the women drove away in the red car. At about this same time, the men exited the residence and moved the gray vehicle. One of the men ran back toward the residence. He then returned to the vehicle, and they left.

         Subsequently, the LRPD also discovered that one of Mr. Pohnka's bank cards had been used at several locations the day after he had been killed, including at a gas station. They obtained surveillance video from the gas station, which showed people using the card. Questioning those people led the LRPD to a suspect, Alexandria Martin. Based on further investigation, the LRPD identified Thornton, Martin, Malcolm Cooksey, and Victoria Harton as the four persons shown in the surveillance video of Pohnka's house. The LRPD later obtained a warrant for the arrest of Martin, Cooksey, and Thornton[3] on charges of aggravated robbery and capital murder in the death of Pohnka. Harton was questioned but not arrested.

         Continuing its investigation, the LRPD searched the home where Cooksey had been staying and found a nine-millimeter pistol wrapped in a shirt. They also investigated the two vehicles believed to have been used in the crime. In the trunk of the red car, the LRPD found bleach and Shout, a stain remover. In the gray car, they found possible blood stains on the floor mat and head rest. However, the LRPD was unable to provide any DNA profiles that matched Thornton.[4]

         At trial, the State called numerous witnesses who detailed the narrative outlined above. It also presented the testimony of Dr. Charles Kokes. Dr. Kokes opined that Pohnka had died of multiple blunt-force injuries, including at least thirteen separate forceful blows to the head. Dr. Kokes explained that Pohnka's injuries did not result in instantaneous death but that it took between fifteen and forty-five minutes for him to die. During this period of time, Pohnka would have been in substantial pain.

         The State presented testimony from three key witnesses concerning Thornton's involvement in Pohnka's death: Alexandria Martin, Malcolm Cooksey, and Jamarcus Hughes. Martin admitted her involvement in Pohnka's death.[5] She admitted that she was present at the house when the murder occurred and admitted knowing that Thornton and Cooksey planned to rob Pohnka. Martin's role was to drive Harton to Pohnka's house where Harton would "turn a trick, " which Martin understood to mean oral sex or some sort of sexual activity between Harton and Pohnka. While Harton was engaged with Pohnka, Cooksey and Thornton planned to arrive in Martin's gray car for the robbery.

         According to Martin, she and Harton arrived at Pohnka's home in a red car. Martin and Harton went into Pohnka's home, but once inside, things did not go as expected between Harton and Pohnka. As Harton and Martin were leaving the house, they passed Cooksey and Thornton on the way in. Cooksey and Thornton were wearing latex gloves. Before leaving the scene, Martin, concerned about leaving her DNA, went back inside when she realized she had left her cigarettes in the ashtray.[6] When she reentered the house, she saw Pohnka on the floor bleeding; he was still alive. Thornton was standing against the kitchen sink with a gun pointed at Pohnka. She also saw Thornton hit him.[7] Cooksey was coming out of the back room and was acting "nervous" and "spooked." He handed her a black bag, and she left. After they had driven away, Cooksey called to asked if they had his gun because he could not find it. It was in the black bag he had handed her. Later, Martin admitted that she had used the credit cards taken in the robbery to put gas in her car and several other cars and that Thornton was with her when she used the cards.[8]

         Malcolm Cooksey, who pled guilty to first-degree murder and robbery and was sentenced in connection with Pohnka's death, also took the stand to testify. He corroborated some of Martin's testimony. According to Cooksey, Harton and Martin went to Pohnka's house while Thornton drove him to Kroger to buy gloves. He admitted that Pohnka's robbery had been planned in advance and that the plan was that his girlfriend, Harton, would meet Pohnka for sex; Cooksey would then rob Pohnka while he was otherwise occupied. At this point, Cooksey's testimony began to contradict that of Martin. Cooksey denied that Thornton was aware of the plan beforehand. In fact, Cooksey testified that he was the one who tripped Pohnka, causing him to fall to the floor, that he was the one who hit Pohnka, and that he was the one who ran through the house grabbing things and placing them in bags. While all this was happening, Cooksey stated Thornton looked shocked. He admitted he had previously told the police that Thornton had hit Pohnka. He stated he had given the conflicting statement regarding Thornton's involvement because he was playing the "blame game" and that, in truth, he was the one who had hit Pohnka.

         Jamarcus Hughes was the last key witness to testify concerning Thornton's involvement in Pohnka's death. Hughes was an inmate where Thornton was also incarcerated. According to Hughes, Thornton admitted his involvement in a robbery that went bad. Hughes testified that Thornton admitted he had beaten someone to death. Thornton told him that he did not intend to kill the man-he was holding a gun on him, but the man would not be still. As a result, Thornton began beating the man with both his hands and the pistol; the guy later died. Thornton told Hughes that the other guy with him was stealing stuff, including guns and credit cards. Hughes denied that he had entered a deal with the State in exchange for his testimony.

         Although Thornton was charged with capital murder and aggravated robbery, the jury ultimately convicted him of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to fifty years in the Arkansas Department of Correction. Thornton now appeals those convictions, alleging that the trial court erred in denying his motions for a ...

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