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Martin v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

December 6, 2018



          Bryce Benjet, The Innocence Project; and Tinsley & Youngdahl, PLLC, by: Jordan B. Tinsley, for petitioner.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Kathryn Henry, Ass't Att'y Gen., for respondent.


         Petitioner Gary B. Martin was convicted of first-degree murder for the 1998 killing of Kimberly Burris, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Martin has now filed a petition to reinvest the circuit court with jurisdiction to consider his petition for writ of error coram nobis or for other relief. Martin argues that his petition should be granted because expert hair-comparison testimony at his trial was not meaningfully different from hair-comparison testimony in other cases wherein we reinvested jurisdiction in the circuit court. He contends that we should follow that precedent in this case. We agree and grant the petition to reinvest jurisdiction in the circuit court.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Burris disappeared from North Little Rock in July 1998. Her remains were discovered in a freezer in an abandoned house in Lonoke County in November 1998. Martin was charged with Burris's murder in March 1999. The bases of the charges included statements given by Yolonda Day. In affirming on direct appeal, we recounted Day's interaction with authorities investigating Burris's death:

Lonoke County authorities learned that Day was in the St. Louis, Missouri area, and contacted the police in St. Louis, who, in turn, picked up Day on April 26, 1999, and questioned her about Burris's murder. That same day, St. Louis Detective Robert Jordan videotaped his interview with Day. Day stated that she did not remember the exact day of the events, but said that she and Gary Martin and two other men-Elton Simms and Lester Perry-were driving in North Little Rock when they picked up Burris on Main Street. Martin said that they needed to take a ride, so they drove to an abandoned house in Lonoke. While in the living room of the house, the group was smoking crack cocaine, when Martin told Burris that he needed to talk to her; the two left the room and went back to a bedroom. About fifteen or twenty minutes later, Day said she heard a scream. She, along with Simms and Perry, went to see what had happened, and they discovered Burris lying in a pool of blood and Martin standing over her with a knife in his hand. Day related that Martin then took some duct tape and rope, put the tape on Burris's mouth, and "hog-tied her and . . . stuffed her in the freezer."
In her interview, Day described the route by which the group drove to the Lonoke house, and provided other details of the killing, such as the type and size of the freezer into which Burris's body had been placed. Day also stated that the men had been saying that they were "going to rough her up or something," although she did not know that they meant to kill her. When asked why Martin would want to "get" Burris, Day said that it was because Burris had given Martin AIDS.
On April 28, 1999, Arkansas State Police Investigator Scott Pillow drove to St. Louis to pick up Day and bring her back to Arkansas. After booking her into the Lonoke County jail, Pillow informed Day of her Miranda rights and began an interview with her, which he audiotaped. During the interview, Day repeated that she joined Martin, Simms, and Perry, and then the group picked up Burris on Main Street in North Little Rock. Day said that Burris was wearing a striped shirt and a pair of shorts at the time. (This fact was later confirmed by Dr. Charles Kokes, the medical examiner, who testified that Burris's remains were clothed in a striped shirt and shorts.) Day essentially repeated to Pillow the same information she had given to Detective Jordan in St. Louis, including the directions to the house where the murder took place, Martin's taking Burris aside to talk to her, and the fact that Martin hogtied Burris with duct tape after placing tape over her mouth and then placed her body in a freezer.

Martin v. State, 346 Ark. 198, 201-02, 57 S.W.3d 136, 138-39 (2001).

         Although Day told investigators that she was with Martin at the crime scene, at the trial itself, Day recanted and testified that she did not know him. However, the State was allowed to introduce Day's earlier taped statements pursuant to Arkansas Rule of Evidence 803(24). In affirming Martin's conviction, we observed that although "the State was able to offer the testimony of numerous witnesses who described seeing Martin with Burris, and spoke of Martin's unusual behavior following her disappearance, Day was the only witness who set out the details and the actual circumstances of the murder." Martin, 346 Ark. at 207, 57 S.W.3d at 142. We concluded that Day's knowledge of the events was highly indicative of her truthfulness in her statements implicating Martin, and we also noted that Day's presence at the house was corroborated by Arkansas State Crime Lab criminalist Chantelle Bequette's testimony at trial that a hair matching Day's was found at the crime scene.

         Martin has now filed a petition to reinvest the circuit court with jurisdiction to consider his petition for writ of error coram nobis or for other relief based on Bequette's hair-comparison testimony.[1] In Strawhacker v. State, 2016 Ark. 348, 500 S.W.3d 716, and Pitts v. State, 2016 Ark. 345, 501 S.W.3d 803, we concluded that similar testimony in those cases had been repudiated as overstating the scientific certainty of hair-comparison identification. Martin argues that one cannot meaningfully distinguish his case from Strawhacker and Pitts and that we should therefore grant his petition as well.

         II. 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. 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. Green v. State, 2016 Ark. 386, 502 S.W.3d 524. 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 issued only under compelling circumstances to achieve justice and to address errors of the most fundamental nature, and it is available to address only 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. See id.

         III. Martin's Petition

         Martin argues that coram nobis relief is appropriate because repudiated testimony led to an unjust conviction and that his petition reasonably alleges facts meeting the Strawhacker standard. Essentially, Martin argues that the hair-comparison testimony offered by Bequette at his trial suffered from the same infirmities as that offered by Michael Malone, an FBI hair-comparison expert in Strawhacker and Pitts. The State responds that Martin's case is not like Strawhacker and Pitts because Bequette's testimony has not been specifically repudiated and because there was a "stark difference" between her testimony and Malone's. The State also ...

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