Date for new trial in 2001 slaying set

FORT SMITH — In a recent letter to Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Gary Cottrell, accused killer Rickey Dale Newman requested access to all evidence in the case and declared his innocence.

“Did Not Kill MAiRE choLETTE IN 2001 OR ANY ONE EVER!!,” Newman wrote in a July 15 letter filed in the circuit clerk’s office July 31.

On June 10, 2002, Newman, 56, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death at the end of a one-day trial in Crawford County Circuit Court for the 2001 slaying 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.

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 and his attorneys be fired. In 2011 Newman asked Cottrell to halt a hearing on his appeal so he could be executed.

In his latest letter to Cottrell, Newman wrote at the top, “NOT TO REMOVE MY COUNSEL AT ALL,” referring to his attorney, Julie Brain of Philadelphia.

Vickie Jones, Cottrell’s trial court assistant, responded to Newman in writing the same day his letter was filed, informing him his letter was forwarded to Brain and Prosecuting Attorney Marc McCune and any future questions or concerns he has should be submitted to his attorney.

This week Cottrell notified Brain and McCune that he has set Newman’s trial for Oct. 27.

Although a trial date was set, nothing filed with the circuit clerk’s office indicates Cottrell or McCune has responded to a defense request asking McCune’s office be disqualified and a special prosecutor appointed to handle the case for the state.

In a June 5 motion, Brain argues 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.

On July 31 Brain filed a motion asking Cottrell to reply to her motion within seven days, after McCune was quoted in a July 17 Times Record article saying he didn’t intend to respond to Brain’s request until an order entered by Cottrell in February sending Newman to the Arkansas State Hospital for “detention, care and treatment until restoration of fitness to proceed” is withdrawn or superseded.

In May Newman was released from the state hospital and returned to jail, with professionals saying Newman didn’t exhibit any signs of major mental illness, but no finding that Newman is fit to proceed to trial.

In her July 31 motion, Brain argues Newman’s return to jail and findings by officials at the state hospital means Newman’s fitness to proceed is no longer in question.