LITTLE ROCK A judge is listening to testimony before considering whether newly discovered medical evidence that might call into question a 1976 murder conviction can be considered.
The hearing centers on Keith Allen Deaton, who was 18 when he pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in the murder of 26-year-old Linda Joan Reed. Deaton had hit Reed with a hammer during a burglary, but she died four weeks after the crime after being treated and released from the hospital.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller must decide whether an appeal can be filed based on medical evidence suggesting other ailments - and not the attack with the hammer - caused Reed's death. The statute of limitations has expired, but a recent U.S. Supreme Court case might allow a claim if the original attorneys were neglectful.
Deaton's sister, Cynthia Houlroyd, testified Thursday that multiple doctors wrote letters that the attack was not the cause of Reed's death, but that Deaton's attorney at the time did not file an appeal when it was allowed.
Houlroyd said other attorneys had failed to obtain medical records and information despite clear questions in the case.
"It didn't make sense she could seem so well and then take a turn and die," Houlroyd said at one point. "We felt there was a strong indication ... Keith might not be guilty. We wanted to go to court and see what we could do."
Deaton's mother, Bonna Deaton, testified first, telling Miller that the family backed the guilty plea because her son's first attorney said he would likely otherwise be sentenced to death by the jury.
"We told him to because we wanted to save his life," she said, her voice shaky from crying.
Bonna Deaton said the family was promised a subsequent appeal was possible, though no details on how it would proceed were shared.
The three attorneys who represented Deaton before his current lawyer are expected to testify later Thursday.