In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on the decisions of Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson, I discussed gifts from trial lawyers and striking down tort reform. In Part 3, Carrie Severino explained Goodson’s attack on the state voter identification statute. In Part 4, I turn to an opinion by Goodson in Newman v. State (Ark. 2014), a hair-raising case in which she overturned the conviction of a brutal murderer.
The defendant was transient Rickey Newman and his victim was a woman named Marie Cholette. The medical examiner described the murder as follows:
[Cholette] had sustained an antemortem wound to her neck that measured eight-and-one-quarter inches long and which transected the right carotid artery. Cholette had suffered multiple stab wounds and lacerations to her chest, and her nipples had been removed. She also had been sliced open from her sternum to her pelvic bone, exposing her intestines. Her liver had been removed from her body, one half of which was missing from the crime scene. In addition, while alive, Cholette had sustained extensive trauma to her anus and vagina, which had been cut out of her body. Cholette’s jaw had been broken, and she had received significant contusions to her left eye. She had multiple contusions on her arms that were described as defensive wounds. The autopsy also disclosed that Cholette’s pelvis contained ashes and burned debris.
Newman initially denied having anything to do with the murder, but eventually confessed and confirmed his knowledge of the crime. Before and during trial, Newman clearly indicated that he was competent: He knew that he was on trial, he knew that he had legal rights, and he knew that he was guilty. He also admitted to the jury that he had selfish reasons for killing Ms. Cholette:
I drugged her up. I got her drunk, and I killed her. Cut her from head to toe. I killed her more than once, I killed her until I got tired of killing her, until the passion of blood went away. Then I left it lay like a dog and walked away. Washed my hands of the whole affair.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, he addressed the jury and stated:
I, Rickey Newman, freely tell the jury that I killed the lady in cold blood. I first cut her a little at a time to make it hurt, and then I stabbed her for fun and to watch her bleed. Then I cut her from her neck to her groin, and then I took some of her insides out and cooked some of her organs to see how long they would cook . . . . I enjoyed murdering her very much and I had a lot of fun killing her and making her hurt real bad. This tells you that I am guilty of murder. The first time I saw her I knew I was going to kill her and make her hurt real bad with a lot of pain.
Not surprisingly, the jury returned a verdict of death. The Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed, specifically noting that Newman was competent to stand trial. The defendant again claimed incompetence but was found competent, a conclusion again affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2004. After some more wrangling, the case returned yet again to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Goodson was on the Court by that time, and she wrote the opinion overturning Newman’s conviction.
There’s a lot wrong with Goodson’s opinion, but there are three especially important problems. The first and most noticeable is Goodson’s unfair presentation of the evidence. Goodson goes out of her way to undermine the testimony of the state psychologist who found Newman competent. Goodson says merely that the state psychologist said Newman “was not afflicted with a mental disease or defect” and “saw no signs or symptoms of multiple-personality disorder” while hinting that Newman did, in fact, have multiple-personality disorder. But in fact, the state psychologist had personally examined Newman at the time and had a much more detailed prognosis.
The second major problem is that Goodson puts a thumb on the scale in favor of the defense experts. Newman had based his latest legal challenge on a forensic psychiatrist who examined Newman four years after the trial took place and a forensic neuropsychologist who examined him three years after the trial. Instead of impartially weighing the expert testimony, though, Goodson blasts the state’s expert while overlooking catastrophic contradictions in the defense experts’ testimony. For instance, Newman’s neuropsychologist testified that Newman did not “understand the meaning of a right” and had “a limited ability to understand court proceedings,” but didn’t explain why Newman could do all sorts of things during trial that incompetent defendants can’t do, like write letters to the court and prosecutors, file motions, testify, tell the court that his attorney will examine witnesses at trial, ask for the death penalty, or try to stop his attorney from taking actions that might save his life.
At other times, Goodson doesn’t even seem to notice the obvious contradictions in the defense testimony, such as the neuropsychologist’s claim that Newman was “not aware of the consequences of his choices” even though Newman told him he confessed “only because he wanted to be killed and put out of his misery.” One need not accept Newman’s claims of innocence to see that he could anticipate the consequences of confessing to capital murder.
Indeed, Goodson’s failure to acknowledge any problems with the defense evidence sends a clear signal that the Arkansas Supreme Court is willing to put its thumb on the scale for capital defendants.
The third problem is that Goodson’s opinion does the opposite of what Arkansas law requires for reviewing lower court decisions. Arkansas law makes quite clear that a writ of error coram nobis, the procedure used to correct an erroneous sentence, is rare and that the court must make “a strong presumption“ that the conviction was valid. Goodson doesn’t even bother to mention or apply that rule in her opinion, though, because she was starting from the presumption that the conviction was invalid. That, dear reader, is not the role of a judge.