FORT SMITH — Death-row inmate Ricky Dale Newman won a new trial Thursday when the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled he was incompetent to stand trial when convicted of capital murder in 2002.
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 46-year-old Marie Cholette.
Newman was allowed to represent himself, confessed to the crime and asked jurors to sentence him to death.
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.
Crawford County Circuit Judge Gary 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 said the testimony of Dr. Clint Gray, a forensic psychiatrist at the Arkansas State Hospital, “most appropriately coincides with the evidence that the court considered during the hearing,” and found Newman is mentally retarded but was competent to stand trial in 2002.
In its unanimous opinion Thursday, the Supreme Court found the testimony of defense experts more persuasive.
“Taking everything into account, we are persuaded that the record overwhelmingly illustrates that Newman’s cognitive deficits and mental illnesses interfered with his ability to effectively and rationally assist counsel,” Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson wrote for the court.
Dr. Pablo Stewart, a forensic psychiatrist, testified in 2011 that Newman suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, cognitive dysfunction, major depression and polysubstance abuse.
Dr. Ricardo Weinstein, a forensic neuropsychologist, testified in 2011 that he assessed Newman’s full-scale I.Q. at 67, which puts him in the range of intellectual disability and significant cognitive deficits related to identifying problems and appreciating social cues, but lacks the ability to determine what is and isn’t relevant and has impaired executive brain function.
Weinstein concurred with Stewart’s diagnosis of PTSD and major depression.
Gray agreed that Newman suffered from mental illness and impaired intellectual functioning, but testified it didn’t impair his understanding of the proceedings against him or his ability to assist counsel.
“After reviewing the entire record, we are left with a definitive firm conviction that a mistake was made … Therefore, we hold that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying Newman’s petition for writ of error coram nobis, and we have no choice but to reverse and remand for a new trial,” the Supreme Court said Thursdady.
Prosecutor Marc McCune said the court’s decision surprised him, based on multiple exams Newman has undergone since 2001, and that he has been found competent each time.
McCune also acknowledged the difficulty of retrying a 13-year-old murder case, where multiple prosecution witnesses have died. He also said based on Cottrell’s finding in 2011 that Newman is mentally retarded, he likely won’t be eligible for the death penalty.
Cholette’s mutilated body was found in a wooded area where transients camped near Lee Creek Park.
Jeff Arnold writes for the Times Record in Fort Smith.