LITTLE ROCK — A divided Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the first-degree battery convictions of a Fort Smith couple who had been arrested on allegations of abusing their two-month-old son in 2011.
Rickey Bruner Sr. was convicted in Sebastian County Circuit Court and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Melissa Workman was convicted and sentenced to life behind bars.
The couple’s young child was found severely malnourished in their home.
Another child also was found in the home with a broken arm and scratches and bruises on his body. His mother, Angel Richard, was charged with first-degree battery and in a separate trial she was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Bruner and Workman argued in their appeals that Sebastian County Circuit Judge J. Michael Fitzhugh erred by excluding evidence of their mental illness. They also argued that the judge failed to give the jury the option of the lesser-included offense of third-degree battery and refused to define the phrase “manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” to the jury.
In a 4-3 decision, the high court rejected all three of the couple’s arguments.
The high court said the couple never argued mental illness or defect during the trial.
“Applicants did not claim the insanity defense that they lacked the capacity to conform their conduct to the requirements of the law. Yet, their stated purpose for introducing the evidence was to prove that they lacked the ability to form the specific intent necessary for the commission of first-degree battery,” Justice Courtney Goodson wrote for the majority.
Goodson also said the victim’s injuries were too great for jury to be told they could consider three-degree battery.
She wrote the boy was severely malnourished to the point of starvation and that death would have occurred within days if he had not received medical treatment. She said the boy was hospitalized 12 days and the effects he suffered from starvation would remain with him for years.
“Regardless of whether there was some evidence of reckless conduct, the physical injury sustained by (the boy) can only be classified as serious,” Goodson wrote. “In keeping with (a previous decision), the circuit court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to instruct the jury on third-degree battery.”
Goodson said the judge correctly provided the jury with model instructions, so he did not abuse its discretion by refusing to define “manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Karen Baker said the couple’s mental examination was relevant evidence that the circuit court should have allowed.
The couple “sought to introduce the mental examination to help the jury determine whether (they) acted knowingly or recklessly and to explain Workman’s inconsistent statements,” Baker wrote. “The evidence was not offered to show whether (the couple) had the ability to form the specific intent necessary to commit first-degree battery.”
Justice Jo Hart joined Baker in the dissent.
In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Cliff Hoofman said the circuit court should have instructed the jury on the lesser-included offense of third-degree battery.
“The evidence … clearly amounts to more than slight evidence from which the jury, which is responsible for determining the weight and credibility to be given to the evidence, could find the (couple) acted recklessly, rather than knowingly, toward their son,” Hoofman said.
Baker and Hart joined Hoofman in the dissent.
Joining Goodson in the majority decision were Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justices Donald Corbin and Paul Danielson.