FORT SMITH — A former state attorney general and Sebastian County prosecutor was appointed Wednesday as special prosecutor in the Rickey Dale Newman case.
During a Wednesday hearing, Crawford County Prosecuting Attorney Marc McCune agreed with a defense request that he and his office be removed from the case. Fort Smith attorney Ron Fields was appointed as special prosecutor.
Newman, 56, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die at the end of a one-day trial in Crawford County Circuit Court on June 10, 2002, for the 2001 murder of Marie Cholette, 46, at a Van Buren homeless camp. Newman represented himself, confessed to the crime and asked jurors to sentence him to death.
On Jan. 16, 2014, the state Supreme Court ruled Newman was incompetent to stand trial when he was convicted in 2002 and ordered a new trial.
Philadelphia attorney Julie Brain, representing Newman, filed a motion in June, asking Circuit Court Judge Gary Cottrell to remove McCune and his office from the case.
Brain argued McCune and his office should be disqualified from handling the case because McCune participated in questioning Newman on May 9, 2002, about a month before Newman’s trial, and he accompanied a Van Buren police officer who took Newman to two different locations where Newman claimed he disposed of the knife used to kill Cholette.
Brain argues there is exculpatory evidence in the May 9, 2002, interview and if the defense uses that information, McCune would be a material witness and therefore excluded from prosecuting the case under a 1987 state Supreme Court decision that says a prosecutor can no longer serve as an advocate for the state when he/she is a potential material witness.
Cottrell scheduled a hearing on the matter for Wednesday, but after briefly listening to Brain make her case for removing McCune, McCune told Cottrell he agreed he and his office should step aside.
McCune said he wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety and didn’t want to create any potential issue for appeal.
When Newman asked Cottrell what that meant, the judge told Newman he was still trying to figure it out.
Cottrell said he talked to Fields earlier in the day and Fields told him McCune asked him about serving as special prosecutor in the case. Fields was in the courtroom for the hearing, and told Cottrell he’d accept the appointment as special prosecutor if asked.
Fields was 12th Judicial District prosecuting attorney for nine terms, winning election each time from 1978 until 1996 when he lost in a bid for a 10th term.
In 1990, he was appointed Arkansas attorney general to serve the rest of Steve Clark’s term when Clark resigned in November 1990 after being convicted of theft by deception.
Between 2000-05, Fields was a senior assistant to Asa Hutchinson in the Drug Enforcement Agency and then a special assistant to Hutchinson in the Department of Homeland Security, before he returned to private practice in Fort Smith.
Fields said he previously served as a special prosecutor in two cases: one involving voter fraud and another in northwest Arkansas involving allegations of misconduct by elected officials.
Fields said he already met with Rex Chronister, the senior partner at Chronister, Fields & Flake, to make sure he had no objection to him taking the appointment. He didn’t.
Cottrell asked Fields to give him a timeline on how quickly he believes he can move forward with the case within three weeks, and gave Fields 30 days to decide if he thinks the case could proceed, considering the time that’s passed since the first trial.
In November 2009, the state Supreme Court remanded Newman’s case to circuit court after a psychologist who found Newman competent to stand trial admitted errors in his evaluation during a 2007 federal court hearing, and questions were raised about whether the state withheld evidence from the defense.
Cottrell presided over a five-day hearing that ended March 18, 2011, during which he heard extensive testimony from prosecution and defense mental health experts regarding Newman’s competence to stand trial in 2002.
In a five-page ruling issued the following July, Cottrell ruled Newman is mentally retarded but was competent to stand trial in 2002.
In court hearings and court filings, Brain has argued the state withheld evidence when Newman was tried in 2002 and Newman is innocent and his confession was a product of his mental illness.
Newman has gone back and forth through the years, allowing appeals to be filed on his behalf and then asking that all appeals be dropped. In 2011, Newman asked Cottrell to halt a hearing on his appeal so he could be executed.
On Thursday, Newman, who’s now grown a beard, objected to Public Defender Ryan Norris sitting at the defense table with he and Brain.
“He doesn’t work for me, he works for them,” Newman said, pointing at McCune and his deputy prosecutors.