TEXARKANA -- A mistrial was declared Tuesday in the retrial of a man accused of fatally shooting another over a parking spot at a Texarkana gas station in 2015.
Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson granted Little Rock lawyer Patrick Benca's request for a mistrial in Marvin Arrell Stanton's murder case after Benca indicated that he might now be needed as a witness in the case and, therefore, is no longer eligible to act as lead defense attorney.
At issue is a jailhouse interview of a key state witness, Lavon Strong, by Benca, which took place before the beginning of Stanton's second trial Monday.
Stanton was found guilty in May 2016 of murder in the Sept. 25, 2015, shooting death of Jesse James Hamilton in the parking lot of the Raceway convenience store and gas station on State Line Avenue. Stanton was sentenced to life in prison for murder plus another 15 years for using a firearm. In May 2017, the Arkansas Supreme Court tossed out Stanton's conviction and remanded the case to Miller County circuit court for a new trial.
A jury was chosen Monday morning and opening statements and testimony began that afternoon. As in Stanton's first trial, Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Barrett described Stanton as a bully who picked a fight with a much smaller man. Barrett theorized that Stanton was moved to shoot Hamilton out of anger in the moments after a fistfight during which Hamilton had gained the upper hand.
Benca, who did not represent Stanton in his first trial, espoused a theory of self-defense during his opening statement. Benca said Stanton's use of deadly force was warranted in defense of himself and of Emily Robinson, a girlfriend of Stanton's who attempted to intervene in the physical confrontation between Stanton and Hamilton.
Strong, the last witness to testify Monday, gave an account under questioning by Barrett that supported the state's theory that Stanton was the aggressor, that Stanton could have walked away at any time, and that Stanton shot Hamilton after the fight was over and no threat existed. Strong testified that he and Sanmarcos Jacobs were riding as passengers in Hamilton's pickup when the three stopped to use the restroom at the store.
Strong said he, Hamilton and Jacobs were in Hamilton's truck and about to leave when four motorcycles drove into the parking lot. Three of them parked near the store entrance, but Stanton parked near Hamilton's truck and shouted, "Move your [expletive] truck," Strong testified.
Strong said Stanton shoved Hamilton into the side of the truck after a short verbal exchange. As blows were traded, Hamilton got the better of the larger man, he said. The two men briefly fell to the ground at about the same time Robinson grabbed Hamilton's shirt and tried to pull him away from Stanton, Strong said. Strong said he believed the fight was over as the two men stood moments before Stanton pulled his holstered .45-caliber handgun and fired a single shot into Hamilton's abdomen.
Under cross examination, Benca made reference to a jailhouse interview of Strong recorded without Strong's knowledge by Benca in March of this year. The use of a transcript of the interview led Barrett to object, citing concerns about the transcript's accuracy and authenticity.
Barrett argued that her office never received a copy of the recorded interview or transcript as is required for evidence either side intends to introduce at trial. Benca argued that he intended only to use the transcript to refresh Strong's memory, not as an exhibit for the jury to consider, and was not obligated to provide it to the state.
Accusations of misconduct were exchanged by Barrett and Benca at the hearing Tuesday morning outside the jury's presence.
Barrett accused Benca of attempting to inform the jury that Strong is in custody on a felony charge pending in Bowie County, Texas. Barrett further complained that Strong was confused as to Benca's role when Benca visited him in the Bi-State Justice Building jail. Barrett said she spoke with Strong after court Monday and was told that Strong believed Benca was representing Hamilton's family in a civil suit.
Referring to a copy of Benca's transcript of his interview with Strong, Barrett argued that Benca attempted to manipulate Strong's testimony.
"Whenever he [Strong] said he can't remember something, he [Benca] would say, 'You've got to remember it, there's a police record,'" Barrett said.
Despite an admonishment from Johnson to stay away from the topic of Strong's opinion of Benca's interview, Strong's answers to Benca's questions Tuesday morning were the last testimony heard by the jury. Strong responded to Benca's queries by stating that Benca "misled" him.
"So are you suggesting that I coerced you into making that statement," Benca asked, prompting a "yes" from Strong.
After the jury was removed from the courtroom, Benca argued that his client is entitled to "effective counsel and a fair trial," and lamented that the jury is now left with the impression the defense may have done something improper that could unfairly impact their opinion of Stanton.
Benca added that he might be called upon to give testimony concerning his recorded interview with Strong. If Benca becomes a witness, he cannot act as Stanton's lawyer.
Barrett insisted that the defense should not be permitted to create a situation and then ask for a mistrial because of it.
"He [Benca] knew what his [Strong's] response would be," Barrett said. "It may be bad lawyering, but he did it."
Benca said he believes Barrett should not have spoken to Strong on Monday evening because Benca had not finished his cross examination. Benca said Barrett's conversation with Strong on Monday may have led Strong to alter his testimony in hopes of currying some favor. Strong's only pending criminal charge is in Bowie County, but Benca argued that Barrett could influence Strong's case in Texas "with a phone call," an assertion Barrett denies.
After taking a brief recess to consider Benca's request for a mistrial, Johnson returned to the courtroom.
"Are you asking for a mistrial because you may be a witness in this case?" Johnson asked Benca.
When Benca replied that he was, Johnson granted the mistrial and released the jury.
Stanton's next trial date hasn't been scheduled, and he is free on bond. He faces 10 to 40 years or life in prison if convicted of murder.
State Desk on 08/10/2018
Print Headline: Mistrial request in 2015 murder granted by judge