A St. Francis County man convicted of killing his cousin deserves a new trial, the Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday after finding that the lower court judge erred by ordering a member of the man's defense team out of the courtroom.
A panel of three appellate judges found that the trial judge's decision to expel the defense investigator was not "harmless," because of the effect it may have had on Willie Lee Doby's right to cross-examine witnesses who testified against him. The judges' reversed Doby's conviction and remanded the case back to the trial court.
Doby was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2014 fatal shooting of his cousin, Lewis Thompson, during an argument on Doby's front porch in Forrest City.
The Appeals Court opinion, written by Judge Brandon Harrison, noted that Doby's conviction relied heavily on the testimony of witnesses, as the murder weapon was never found and Doby had not confessed.
Gunshot residue was found on Doby's clothes, but that could have meant he fired the deadly shot, was nearby or came into contact with the shooter, a criminologist with the state Crime Laboratory testified, according to court records.
Several people were on the porch when Thompson was shot, according to the court record.
Thompson's wife, Khalilah, originally told police she wasn't there, but later changed her story, saying Doby was the shooter.
An investigator for Doby's defense team, Steve Speir, had interviewed the state's witnesses, including Khalilah Thompson, and was there to help cross-examine them, Doby's attorneys argued.
But Circuit Judge Richard Lee Proctor ordered Speir out the courtroom after prosecutors said they might call Speir to testify about witness tampering they claimed he had seen. Doby's attorney at the trial, Gerald Coleman, said Wednesday that the prosecution never called Speir.
Arkansas Rules of Evidence Rule 615 allows a judge to order a witness out of the courtroom at the request of one party, so that the witness does not hear the testimony of other witnesses.
However, the Appeals Court found that Proctor abused his discretion under the rule by excluding a member of the defense team.
The decision by the Appeals Court sent the case back to the lower court for "further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Doby is serving a 27-year sentence for the murder at the Varner Unit. He is eligible for parole in 2034. His attorney on appeal was Michael Kaiser of the James Law Firm in Little Rock.
Metro on 12/14/2017