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Juror-signed petition prompts call for retrial in Arkansas murder case

by John Moritz | August 26, 2019 at 7:00 a.m.

Some potential jurors called for a murder trial in Texarkana earlier this month wound up making a different sort of judgment: whether the case's prosecutor, Stephanie Potter Barrett, should appear on the ballot for a seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

Defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig is now seeking a new trial for his client, Marvin Arrell Stanton, after discovering that one of the 12 jurors who found Stanton guilty on Aug. 14 lent her signature to Barrett's judicial candidacy petition before the conclusion of the trial.

Four other potential jurors who were culled during jury selection before the trial also signed the prosecutor's petition, records show.

Rosenzweig said that courthouse politicking tainted Stanton's trial. Meanwhile, an opponent of Barrett's in the Court of Appeals race said the gathering of signatures at the courthouse could be a violation of rules governing judicial elections.

Barrett contended last week that she did nothing wrong, noting that the courthouse is a public space that other candidates also utilize. She said her aunt collected the signatures for her during the trial.

"There's nothing unethical that happened," Barrett said. "I was trying a murder trial, not soliciting [signatures]."

Rosenzweig said the Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission was "aware of" his concerns about Barrett. David Sachar, the commission's director, said he could not comment on whether a complaint had been filed.

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The next general election for judges is March 3.

Candidates for nonpartisan judicial offices can qualify for the ballot in one of two ways: They can submit petitions with signatures of registered voters or they can pay a filing fee.

In the case of a judge for the Court of Appeals, the candidates must collect the lesser of 2,000 signatures or 3% of the qualified electors residing in the district. The filing fee would be equal to 5% of the judge's salary, or a little more than $8,000.

Petitions with signatures must be submitted by noon Sept. 12 to the secretary of state's office. Otherwise, the candidate pays a fee during the November filing period.

Barrett and her opponent, 33rd District Court Judge Emily White, are collecting signatures in hopes of appearing on the ballot for an open spot on the Court of Appeals' 4th District, which covers southwest Arkansas.

After the first day of Stanton's murder trial on Monday, Aug. 12, Rosenzweig said he was tipped off that Barrett's campaign materials were on display outside the courtroom at the Miller County Courthouse, causing him to raise the issue in court the next day. When he later discovered that one juror had signed Barrett's petitions, he said he moved for a mistrial, which was denied by Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson.

"I verified it with my own eyes on Tuesday morning," the second day of the trial, Rosenzweig said.

Rosenzweig sent the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photos that showed two stacks of petition forms, along with business cards bearing Barrett's name and face, on top of a table next to a metal detector. Rosenzweig said the metal detector was at the entrance jurors must pass through to get to the courtroom.

Another photo sent to the paper was of a single signature page for Barrett's petition, containing eight signatures. Above the signatures, a statement read in part: "We, the undersigned ... propose that Stephanie Potter Barrett be placed on the ballot as a Candidate for the Office of Court of Appeals Judge."

The Democrat-Gazette was able to match five of the names on that list with the names of people who were called for jury selection in the Stanton case, including one person who ended up serving on the jury. The Democrat-Gazette was unable to reach that juror or the prospective jurors who signed the petition.

In a telephone interview last week, Barrett said she was following the lead of several local judges who she said were collecting signatures at the courthouse that day. She sent the newspaper an Aug. 2 letter from the county judge, Cathy Harrison, telling candidates that it was permissible to collect signatures in public areas of the courthouse.

"They were all back there," Barrett said, referring to other judges.

Barrett said she assumed her aunt, a master gardener with an office in the courthouse, had collected the juror's signature the first day of the trial, possibly while the jury was on a break. The prosecutor said she never spoke with any jurors about her campaign for the Court of Appeals. She declined to say whether she planned to submit the juror's signature along with the others collected.

"She did not know whose petition she had signed," Barrett said, suggesting that the juror had confused Barrett's petition with one belonging to another judge.

Asked about Barrett's statement that other judges were campaigning in the courthouse, Circuit Judge Carlton D. Jones, the administrative judge for the 8th South Judicial Circuit, said he could only comment that he had not placed his own campaign materials out in the courthouse. Jones is running for re-election next year.

Outside the Miller County Courthouse, others also said the presence of the prosecutor's campaign at the trial raised concerns.

"To me, it taints the juror," said John Wesley Hall, a criminal defense attorney based in Little Rock. "That just seems to undermine the whole concept of, 'Was the defendant treated fairly?'"

Hall said that whether or not a juror believes that he can continue to hear a case fairly, "the appearance of impropriety" can be enough for a judge to declare a mistrial.

Long-time Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley, whose district covers Pulaski County, said he was unfamiliar with any other instances in which a prosecutor had campaign materials on display outside a courtroom, or of a juror signing a petition on behalf of the prosecutor.

"Sounds problematic to me," Jegley said.

White, the other candidate running for the Position 2 seat in the Court of Appeals' 4th District, said she was told by Rosenzweig about the incident at the Miller County Courthouse. As a former deputy director of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, White said Barrett's campaign may have violated the state's Code of Judicial Conduct.

Rule 4.1 of that code prohibits the "use court staff, facilities, or other court resources in a campaign for judicial office."

"I would have urged a judicial candidate not to do that because of the appearance of impropriety," White said.

Firing back at her opponent, Barrett in turn accused White of violating Rule 4.1 by posting to her campaign's Facebook account pictures of herself wearing judicial robes while in her courtroom.

"If that's something that she feels is a violation, then she shouldn't be doing it," Barrett said.

White said that judges routinely use photographs of themselves in robes during judicial campaigns, saying, "That's not unusual at all."

Meanwhile, Rosenzweig on Friday filed a pair of motions in Miller County seeking a new trial for Stanton as well as the recusal of all the circuit judges in the courthouse. If the motion is granted, it will result in Stanton's fourth trial in the 2015 shooting death of Jesse James Hamilton, during what police said was a fight over a parking space.

Stanton, 53, was convicted and sentenced to life in 2016, though that conviction was later overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Stanton's second trial last year ended in a mistrial.

A Miller County jury again found Stanton guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

SundayMonday on 08/26/2019

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