Lack of jurors postpones trial on 2020 slaying of Pine Bluff officer

KeShone Quantarious Smith is shown here via Zoom videoconference link during a probable cause hearing in District Court on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020. Smith was ordered held without bond on probable cause in connection with the shooting death of Pine Bluff Det. Kevin Collins the previous Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Dale Ellis)

A murder trial originally planned to start as soon as this week has been moved back to Jan. 22 after only five jurors were found, despite a jury selection process that spanned four days.

Keshone Smith, now 22, is charged with capital murder in the Oct. 5, 2020 shooting death of Pine Bluff police Detective Kevin D. Collins.

Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Hunter said Thursday evening that the court realized it wouldn’t have the 12 jurors needed to proceed with Smith's trial. Hunter is the prosecuting attorney for the 11th District West, which encompasses Jefferson and Lincoln counties.

Officials had hoped that jury selection would last only three days and that the trial could start as soon as Thursday. Before noon Thursday, Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis had said that jury selection would push the start of questioning back to Monday morning at the earliest.

Officials interviewed 69 potential jurors this week. A wave of three potential jurors who were interviewed on Thursday morning produced the fifth juror. The second wave of three people produced no jurors.

Jury selection will start over in January, meaning the five selected jurors are now excused, Hunter said.

“We’re disappointed that this has happened,” Hunter said. “I feel very disappointed for the family of Kevin Collins that this has to continue.”

Smith is also charged with first-degree battery of police officer Ralph Isaac and two other counts of first-degree battery in the Oct. 5, 2020 shootout at the Econo Lodge Motel on North Blake Street. Smith is being held without bail in the Jefferson County jail.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Smith, which Hunter said would require them to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Smith murdered Collins in a premeditated and deliberate manner. If all 12 jurors find that to be true, Hunter said, the trial would then move to a penalty phase in which additional evidence of aggravating and mitigating circumstances would be presented. Based on that, the jury would then render a sentence of either death, or life without the possibility of parole.

Smith appeared in a buttoned shirt and slacks Thursday.

Seven more jurors were needed to complete the jury. Through Thursday morning, 17 more potential jurors were waiting to be questioned by prosecutors including Hunter, as well as by defense lawyers including Lee D. Short of North Little Rock and Jim Wyatt of Little Rock.

“I think all I can say is that all the people we have questioned have been honest in their answers,” Short said. “In my experience, the jury selection is going as it’s supposed to go in a trial where the death penalty is considered.”

Short also said the number of motions by both sides and the length of time the case has taken to go to trial are very typical in a case where the death penalty is a possibility. Smith was formally charged in December 2020.

One of the questions posed to potential jurors was whether they had an idea of how long it takes to “premeditate” a killing. One woman answered, “It was said that ‘premeditated’ could be an instant.”

Both parties must agree that a potential juror can serve before the judge finalizes that decision. Prospective jurors who were questioned on Thursday were rejected for reasons that included a refusal to sign off on the death penalty during the sentencing phase, and beliefs that a law enforcement officer would give more reliable testimony than another witness.

One potential juror who was questioned about using self-defense against a police officer said she never heard of anyone having to use that, adding that police officers are supposed to help people. It is not clear, though, whether Smith's attorneys plan to argue self-defense in his case.

Smith and two other men were facing active felony warrants for a homicide in Georgia when Smith was found at the Pine Bluff motel. Smith is accused of firing his weapon at the officers, at which point an officer returned fire, according to an affidavit from state police.

Another man identified as Kirel Young told police that he was struck in the hand immediately after he heard the gunshots. Investigators believe the round that struck Young was fired by Smith.

Collins died at a local hospital. Isaac was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. A third officer on the scene, Kelsey Collins, was not injured. Kelsey Collins is not related to Kevin Collins.