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Mitchell v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

March 7, 2019

TONISHA MITCHELL APPELLANT
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE CRAIGHEAD COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 16CR-15-613] HONORABLE DAVID N. LASER, JUDGE

          James Law Firm, by: Michael Kiel Kaiser and William O. "Bill" James, Jr., for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Darnisa Evans Johnson, Deputy Att'y Gen., and Adam Jackson, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          ROBIN F. WYNNE, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         Tonisha Mitchell appeals following her conviction for first-degree murder in the Craighead County Circuit Court, for which she was sentenced to life imprisonment.[1] She raises the following points on appeal: (1) the trial court violated her fundamental right to a public trial by closing the courtroom to the public during the testimony of State's witness Vikkesha Menifee; (2) the trial court erred in denying trial counsel's motion to withdraw and her motion to change attorneys; and (3) the trial court erred in denying her motion for new trial based on jurors seeing her escorted into the courtroom by bailiffs while she was bound by arm restraints just prior to jury selection. We find merit in her first point, and we therefore reverse and remand for a new trial.

          I. Background

         On May 25, 2015, Nelson McCullough was shot and killed at his house in Jonesboro. Appellant was charged with first-degree murder in McCullough's death, and appellant's jury trial was held on June 20-23, 2017. Ladarius Lee testified that he and Antonio Watson, who was deceased at the time of trial, rode with appellant in a borrowed silver Dodge Charger to the victim's house to purchase marijuana. While Lee was inside, appellant came in and shot McCullough without saying anything. Watson fled, and Lee and appellant drove away and immediately exchanged the Charger for appellant's vehicle. In addition to Lee's testimony, the victim's girlfriend testified that she had identified Lee as the person who knocked on the door the day of the shooting; the owner of the Charger testified regarding appellant borrowing the vehicle; and Vikkesha Menifee testified that appellant told her she had shot the victim. Appellant was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. She filed a pro se motion for new trial and her appointed counsel filed an amended motion for new trial because members of the jury panel had allegedly seen appellant in restraints prior to voir dire. Following a hearing, the circuit court denied the motion. This appeal followed.

         II. Public Trial

         For her first point on appeal, appellant argues that the closure of the courtroom during the testimony of State's witness Vikkesha Menifee violated her constitutional right to a public trial. The issue arose in the following bench conference:

[Deputy Prosecutor]: Your Honor, for this next witness, I would ask the Court to close the courtroom and exclude any of the audience from it.
The Court: Who is the witness?
[Deputy Prosecutor]: Her name is Vikkesha Menifee. She is the aunt of the defendant, and we have what we believe is credible evidence that certain members of the defendant's family have reached out in an effort to intimidate her to prevent her from testifying, and so we are going to ask that the courtroom be closed and all of the gallery excluded during her testimony.
The Court: Well, of course the defendant ...

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