APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIRST DIVISION
[NO. 60CR-79-471] HONORABLE LEON JOHNSON, JUDGE
Issac Pitts, pro se appellant.
Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Jason Michael Johnson,
Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.
A. WOMACK, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE
an appeal from the trial court's denial of appellant
Eugene Issac Pitts's petition for writ of error coram
nobis that he filed after this court gave Pitts permission to
proceed with that petition in Pitts v. State, 2016
Ark. 345, 501 S.W.3d 803 (Pitts II). Pitts's
arguments on appeal turn on his claims that the trial court
failed to conduct a proper analysis when it did not treat the
admission of certain evidence as structural error and failed
to apply the law-of-the-case doctrine. The error here was not
structural, and the trial court's analysis was correct.
Pitts failed to show an abuse of discretion, and we affirm.
was convicted of capital felony murder in 1979 for killing
Dr. Bernard Jones in the course of kidnapping the North
Little Rock veterinarian, and this court affirmed the
judgment. Pitts v. State, 273 Ark. 220, 617 S.W.2d
849 (1981) (Pitts I). Pitts II concerned
testimony of FBI agent Michael Malone on microscopic
hair-comparison analysis. The Department of Justice (DOJ)
repudiated Malone's testimony, concluding aspects of
Malone's testimony at Pitts's trial exceeded the
limits of science by overstating the probative value of
hair-comparison analysis. 2016 Ark. 345, at 3-4, 501 S.W.3d
court gave leave to proceed in Pitts II, referencing
a companion case, Strawhacker v. State, 2016 Ark.
348, 500 S.W.3d 716, for its reasoning. Appointed counsel
representing Pitts filed the error coram nobis petition in
the trial court alleging a violation of Brady v.
Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and that without
Malone's testimony, there was a reasonable probability
that Pitts would have been acquitted on the basis of the
strengthened proposition of an alternative, white suspect. In
the hearing on the petition, Pitts, representing himself,
presented no evidence, instead asserting what he contended
was the correct method of analysis and the applicable
standard to be applied.
order, the trial court first determined that no
Brady violation had occurred; then, after
specifically referencing an instruction in
Strawhacker to consider whether the writ should be
granted under the rule of reason or to prevent a miscarriage
of justice, it declined to issue the writ. The trial court
found that Pitts had not demonstrated that Malone's
testimony was material or, even if the testimony was
material, that Pitts had met his burden of showing a
reasonable probability that, had the DOJ's repudiation
been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding
would have been different. Referencing Pitts's brief, the
trial court also stated that it was not convinced that there
was a reasonable probability "on what remains" that
Pitts would have been acquitted.
Standard of Review
standard of review for an order on a petition for writ of
error coram nobis is abuse of discretion in granting or
denying the writ. Osburn v. State, 2018 Ark. 341,
560 S.W.3d 774. An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial
court acts arbitrarily or groundlessly. Id. In
reinvesting the circuit court with jurisdiction to consider
claims for issuance of the writ, this court tasks the circuit
court with resolving factual disputes, and when it acts as a
fact-finder, the circuit court determines the credibility of
witnesses, resolves conflicts and inconsistencies in
testimony, and assesses the weight to be given the evidence.
Isom v. State, 2018 Ark. 368, 563 S.W.3d 533. This
court reviews the trial court's factual findings for
clear error. Id. A finding is clearly erroneous
when, although there is evidence to support it, the appellate
court, after reviewing the entire evidence, is left with a
definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.
Basis for the Writ
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. Foreman v. State, 2018 Ark. 330. The writ
is allowed only under compelling circumstances to achieve
justice and to address errors of the most fundamental nature.
Id. A writ of error coram nobis is available for
addressing 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. Id.
Coram nobis proceedings are attended by a strong presumption
that the judgment of conviction is valid. Id.