Attorneys for a 26-year-old Conway man facing the death penalty after Little Rock police say he admitted to killing a mother and child told a judge on Thursday they are exploring a potential insanity defense, which required the judge to indefinitely postpone trial.
Malcolm Keunta Ester is charged with two counts of capital murder. He was arrested two days after the bodies of Shunterris Shaynce "Terry" Salter, 32, and eight-year-old JaMichael Terry Petty were found in their home in September 2021 by Salter's mother. Salter was a mother of two who is survived by a daughter.
There hasn't been a death-penalty trial in Pulaski County Circuit Court since Abdulhakim Muhammad, now 37, of Tennessee stood trial in July 2011 for fatally ambushing two Little Rock soldiers in a drive-by shooting, killing one of them, William Andrew Long, in June 2009.
The jury did not get an opportunity to render a verdict on his guilt or punishment because Muhammad, who had confessed to the shootings, pleaded guilty during the trial to first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and unlawful discharge of a firearm, and accepted a life sentence.
The last time Pulaski County jurors were asked to impose the death penalty was in 2009 for the Marianna man who beat 26-year-old TV anchor Anne Pressly to death in 2008, attacking and raping her while she slept in her Little Rock home.
Curtis Vance, now 42, admitted to the murder after his DNA was extracted from a single hair found in her bedsheets. Vance was sentenced to life in prison after jurors who convicted him could not reach the required unanimous verdict on whether he should be executed. Pulaski County has four defendants on death row, out of 30 in the state.
Thursday, Ester's attorney, Jimmy Morris, told Circuit Judge Leon Johnson that the defense is waiting for the state Public Defender Commission to approve funds for a psychologist to examine Ester.
Ester has admitted to killing the mother and child, with Morris and co-counsel Ron Davis contesting the legality of police questioning that resulted in Ester's confession. They have petitioned the judge to suppress his statements and evidence.
With the defense calling Ester's sanity into question, the case can't move forward -- and the suppression issue cannot be decided -- until Ester can be declared competent to proceed.
State doctors who have examined Ester report he has no mental illness but Morris told the judge, with Ester, who has never been in serious trouble with the law before, facing execution, the defense is obligated to see if an independent evaluator reaches the same conclusions. The ultimate decision on Ester's mental fitness will rest with the judge, who will be required to make findings about the defendant's health, possibly requiring a hearing.
At the suggestion of Prosecuting Attorney Will Jones, the judge set a Sept. 11 hearing, using the date that had been set for Ester's two-week trial, with the prospect of conducting a sanity hearing, if the defense's doctor can examine Ester and be prepared by then, or an evidentiary hearing if the doctor agrees that Ester is in his right mind.
Shunterris Salter and her son were dead when her mother found them, with Salter's body in the living room of the 1,451-square-foot rental home on the corner of Nichols and 18th streets.
JaMichael was in the bedroom, face down on a bed, shot at least once in the back of the head. Police collected four .380-caliber shell casings nearby with another two found elsewhere in the residence.
Salter's mother Sherita Salter, 49, told investigators she had come to the home looking for her daughter and grandson after not hearing from them since the preceding day. Sherita Salter said the front door was slightly open when she arrived so she went inside and found her daughter and grandson.
Sherita Salter said she had gone to the home because no one answered the phone, telling police she had learned that her grandson never showed up at school. She said she'd last heard from her daughter about 6 p.m. the day before.
The investigation led by Detective Erik Temple immediately focused on Ester after Sherita Salter said she thought her daughter's boyfriend had killed her, according to police reports.
Shunterris Salter's brother, Lerrell Salter, told investigators that his sister had been dating Ester since fall 2020 but was leaving him and Ester had not been taking the break-up well, according to police reports. Lerrell Salter, 24, said Ester had been shot in Eudora in 2020, where the couple had been living, and they had moved to Little Rock soon after that.
Investigators were able to reach Ester by phone that evening. He said he was on his way back to Little Rock from Texas, and arrived at the police station about 10 hours after the bodies had been discovered.
According to the police reports, Ester told detectives he and Shunterris Salter had been dating about 16 months, since May 2020, and had moved to Little Rock in November 2020.
Ester said he had loved Salter and tried to provide for her the best he could, but that they had begun seeing other people. He said she had been fatally wounded the night before -- about an hour after she had spoken to her mother -- after they had begun arguing, which led to them fighting over a gun.
Ester said he shot Salter twice in the head, describing how JaMichael had begged him not to shoot him. Ester said he told the boy he was sorry and then shot him, police reports show. He said the boy had tried to come to his mother's rescue, with Salter explaining he had shot JaMichael because he did not want any witnesses.
Ester said he left for Texas, throwing the gun out of the car along Interstate 30.
Four days after the murders, Watauga, Texas, police informed detectives that a woman who knew Ester had given them a .380 pistol she said she found in her purse. Totteana Caldwell, 33, a resident of the Fort Worth, Texas, suburb, said Ester showed up at her apartment a few days earlier, washed up in her bathroom, before going to bed.
She later found the pistol when she discovered her purse was unusually heavy.