LITTLE ROCK — A man convicted in the 2010 killing of a Greenbrier woman should have his conviction overturned because his erratic behavior in the courtroom showed he was not competent to stand trial, his attorney argued Thursday before the state Supreme Court.
An attorney for the state argued that the justices should defer to the trial judge, who witnessed the behavior of Ronald Britton Jr. and allowed the trial to continue.
The high court heard oral arguments but did not immediately issue a ruling in Britton’s appeal of his February 2013 capital murder conviction in Faulkner County Circuit Court. Britton, now 38, is serving a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole in the stabbing death of his girlfriend, Michelle Asher, 26.
Lawyer Janice Vaughn read to the justices from Britton’s rambling, nonsensical testimony at his trial and said that although the defense waived a competency hearing, Britton’s behavior “should have put the court on notice that Mr. Britton was not competent to stand trial.”
According to news coverage of the trial, Britton also sang, recited from Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, banged his head against a wall repeatedly and at one point lunged for a witness who testified against him. After the latter incident, Britton was placed in handcuffs, leg shackles and a stun belt.
The witness testified that Vaughn told him in a jail cell that he killed Asher because he believed she had had sex with a black man.
Assistant Attorney General Christian Harris argued that experts for both the state and the defense offered opinions that Britton was competent to stand trial.
Justice Donald Corbin said, “There were some indications of really bizarre behavior. How can the judge ignore that?”
Harris said bizarre behavior is not sufficient to establish that a defendant is unable to understand the proceedings and unable to assist his attorney. He also noted that Circuit Judge Ed Clawson was in the room with Britton, whereas the justices had only a transcript to go by.
“We should defer to the trial court,” Harris said.
Vaughn argued that experts for both sides agreed that Britton was bipolar and that one of them testified that Britton’s behavior in the courtroom was consistent with a manic episode.
Harris argued that Britton demonstrated in several ways that he understood the proceedings, including his outburst when his former cellmate testified against him. Harris argued that Britton made a rational decision to act irrationally in the hope that it would help his case.
Vaughn also argued that Clawson should have declared a mistrial because jurors saw Britton in handcuffs, shackles and a stun belt after his outburst. Harris said a mistrial is an extreme remedy and argued that a trial judge has a wide measure of discretion in that area.
The justices did not indicate when they would rule.