A federal judge concluded a four-day hearing Friday by saying he would take "under advisement" a request to grant a new trial for Keith Allen Deaton of Batesville, who has served nearly 40 years in prison for killing a woman whose death he now believes he didn't cause.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller said he will give attorneys two weeks to submit any additional information before he issues a written ruling.
This week's hearing was held at the direction of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled on April 11, 2014, that Deaton was entitled to demonstrate whether he can meet a standard of "actual innocence." Inmates meeting that strict standard are given more leeway to pursue petitions for relief after the statute of limitations has expired.
Now Miller must decide whether Deaton met the standard by proving that "it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence."
The "new evidence" in Deaton's case consists mostly of medical records that were unavailable to the forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy in October 1976 on Linda Joan Reed, 26, who died a day earlier at UAMS Medical Center in Little Rock, where she was transferred from the White River Medical Center in Batesville.
Reed was first admitted to the White River hospital for a skull fracture she suffered when Deaton, a neighbor, broke into her home on the night of Sept. 24, 1976, and hit her on the back of the head with a hammer. Her four young children were home at the time, but none of them were injured. Reed was released from the hospital nearly two weeks later, on Oct. 7, but she was readmitted Oct. 20, complaining of headaches and nausea that wouldn't go away. She died the next night.
After performing an autopsy, a state medical examiner, Rodney Carlton, reported the cause of her death as "respiratory distress due to or as a consequence of the unknown -- possible Valium overdose." Later, apparently after talking with law enforcement officials, he added a notation that the ailments were the end result of a "chain of events" that began with the blow to her head.
Even though Carlton didn't list the manner of death as homicide, Deaton was charged with capital murder. He pleaded guilty at the advice of an attorney who was trying to save Deaton from being convicted in a jury trial and possibly sentenced to the death penalty. Deaton's plea negotiations resulted in him accepting the only other sentence available for a capital murder conviction -- life in prison.
Deaton's family members said they later realized that the young defense attorney they hired was inexperienced in criminal law and should have requested a copy of the death certificate or otherwise investigated the circumstances of the case before advising Deaton to take the plea. Another attorney retained by Deaton's family after his conviction failed to file a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel before the statute of limitations had expired, ending Deaton's chance of getting a new trial based on that.
Other attorneys' efforts in later years focused on obtaining clemency for Deaton, but the requests were rejected by Govs. Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Huckabee, even though Carlton wrote letters in support of clemency.
Deaton's sister, Cynthia Houlroyd, had persuaded Carlton after he retired but before he died Oct. 19, 2007, to review the autopsy and his report in conjunction with the medical records he didn't have access to at the time of the autopsy.
The records showed, among other things, that Reed had been diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs before her death, and that she may have received a fatal overdose of Valium. Houlroyd said she had learned how to read medical records, and in the process of reviewing her brother's files, discovered the discrepancies that she thought might have resulted in different findings if Carlton had had access to them during his autopsy.
Carlton told the governors that in reviewing the case, he realized that the blow to the head couldn't have caused Reed's death.
In a hearing that began Tuesday, a forensic pathologist from New Jersey who examined Reed's medical records, as well as early and final drafts of the autopsy report and the five autopsy photographs, testified that the head wound was totally separate from the other ailments that led Reed to suffer respiratory arrest and die. He blamed her death on pneumonia and a possible overdose of Valium, and he cited evidence of an untreated urinary tract infection.
But the state's current medical examiner, Dr. Charles Kokes, disputed the out-of-state pathologist's interpretations, saying Thursday that the blow to the head was unequivocally the cause of the medical issues that killed Reed.
Kokes testified that he believes the pneumonia had only been in Reed's system for a day or two, and hadn't gotten to the point of interfering with her brain's ability to get oxygen. Kokes said that as the head wound became larger internally, intermittently bleeding and scarring over, it eventually caused so much intracranial pressure -- which was consistent with Reed's reports of headaches -- that Reed went into respiratory arrest and died.
Metro on 09/12/2015
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