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Heath Carlton Stocks v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

October 24, 2019



          Heath Stocks, pro se appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Vada Berger, Sr. Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.


         Heath Carlton Stocks appeals the circuit court's denial of his pro se petition for a writ of error coram nobis and audita querela.[1] Stocks, who entered a guilty plea in 1997 to three counts of capital murder in the deaths of his family members, raises multiple grounds for relief. Because Stocks has not established grounds for issuance of the writ, we affirm.

         I. Nature of the Writ

         We review a circuit court's denial of a petition for writ of error coram nobis for abuse of discretion. Newman v. State, 2014 Ark. 7. A court abuses its discretion when it acts arbitrarily or groundlessly. Nelson v. State, 2014 Ark. 91, 431 S.W.3d 852. A writ of error coram nobis is an extraordinarily rare remedy. State v. Larimore, 341 Ark. 397, 17 S.W.3d 87 (2000). The function of the writ is to secure relief from a judgment when there existed some fact that would have prevented its rendition if it had been known to the circuit court and that, through no negligence or fault of the defendant, was not brought forward before judgment. Newman v. State, 2009 Ark. 539, 354 S.W.3d 61. It is the petitioner's burden to demonstrate a fundamental error of fact extrinsic to the record. Roberts v. State, 2013 Ark. 56, 425 S.W.3d 771. The trial court is not required to hold a hearing on a clearly non-meritorious coram nobis petition. Griffin v. State, 2018 Ark. 10, 535 S.W.3d 261.

         The writ is allowed only under compelling circumstances to achieve justice and to address errors of the most fundamental nature. Dednam v. State, 2019 Ark. 8, 564 S.W.3d 259. A writ of error coram nobis is available to address the following errors: (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. Howard v. State, 2012 Ark. 177, 403 S.W.3d 38. Error coram nobis proceedings are attended by a "strong presumption" that the judgment of conviction is valid. Nelson, 2014 Ark. 91, at 3, 431 S.W.3d at 854.

         II. Stocks's Claims for Relief

         On appeal, Stocks reasserts his multiple claims for coram nobis relief. He alleges that the circuit court was biased and exceeded its jurisdiction by failing to conduct either a competency hearing or a guilty-plea hearing. Second, Stock's contends that the State committed a Brady violation by (1) failing to disclose that an investigator had provided Charles "Jack" Walls III with a copy of the case file and that Walls had used the information to manipulate members of Stocks's family into pressuring Stocks to plead guilty; (2) allowing Reverend Markle to speak to Stocks and by withholding information that Stocks's mother had told Reverend Markle about Walls's sexual abuse; (3) delaying Walls's prosecution until after Stocks had pleaded guilty; (4) withholding evidence of Walls's "mind control" over Stocks; (5) withholding mitigating evidence of Walls's long-term sexual abuse of Stocks; and (6) withholding other mitigating and exculpatory evidence.

         In addition, Stocks asserts several claims regarding his mental competency. He claims that he was suffering from a mental defect when he pled guilty; that his counsel was ineffective for advising him not to cooperate with the court-ordered mental evaluation; and that the evaluating physicians failed to consider a previous mental evaluation. Lastly, he contends that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct by failing to disclose the prosecutor's relationship with Walls's father.

         III. Judicial Bias

         Stocks argued at trial and reasserts on appeal that the circuit court was biased by failing to hold a competency hearing and a plea hearing in compliance with Rules 24.4, 24.6, and 24.7 of the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The mere fact that some rulings are adverse to the appellant is not enough to demonstrate judicial bias. Brown v. State, 2012 Ark. 399, 424 S.W.3d 288. Stocks's dissatisfaction with the circuit court's decisions with respect to those hearings and how they were conducted does not constitute a showing of extrinsic evidence that would have produced a different result. Martinez-Marmol v. State, 2018 Ark. 145, 544 S.W.3d 49. Rather than an issue of judicial bias, Stocks has raised an issue of trial error. Assertions of trial error that could have been raised at trial are not within the purview of a coram nobis proceeding. Key v. State, 2019 Ark. 202, 3, 575 S.W.3d 554.

         IV. With ...

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