(CN) — An Arkansas man will be tried a fourth time for murder after the state’s high court on Thursday overturned his latest conviction because of the prosecutor’s campaign activities during trial, which it found to be an “abuse and exploitation of the judicial system.”
“This kind of conduct has no place in the administration of justice and should not have been permitted,” Justice Shawn Womack wrote in the ruling. “The circuit court should have dealt promptly with the prosecutor’s improper campaigning in the courthouse during trial.”
A state jury sentenced Marvin Stanton to life in prison last year for the 2015 murder of Jesse Hamilton following an altercation over a gas station parking spot. Prosecutors claimed Stanton, riding a motorcycle, initiated a verbal and physical altercation with Hamilton, which they say ended when Stanton pulled a handgun from his waistband and shot the 22-year-old victim to death.
Stanton’s first conviction in 2016 was reversed on direct appeal, and a mistrial was declared in his second trial two years later.
But it was the courthouse campaigning by Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Potter Barrett, who won an open seat on the state Court of Appeals in March, that undid Stanton’s third conviction for first-degree murder.
There is no dispute that Barrett campaigned and solicited signatures from jurors and prospective jurors during the first day and a half of trial, a practice that at least two sitting circuit judges also engaged in, according to court documents. Of the signatures collected by a Barrett family member, four belonged to prospective jurors, including one juror who was ultimately selected.
In overturning Stanton’s conviction Thursday, the state’s highest court admonished Barrett’s conduct as inappropriate and found the trial judge’s refusal to grant a mistrial “perplexing.” Prospective jurors entering the courthouse should not have become “a captive audience bombarded with election petitions from Barrett,” the court found.
“This is an abuse and exploitation of the judicial system and the fundamental civic responsibility of jury service,” the 14-page ruling states. “This abuse was furthered by the presence of Barrett’s campaign materials on the bailiff’s security table.”
Defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig said Stanton will be entitled to be released on the same bond he had before his conviction once the Arkansas Supreme Court’s mandate is issued and he is returned back to Texarkana from state prison.
“We were very gratified obviously by the ruling considering the victory for the fairness of the judicial process to take politics out of a courtroom,” Rosenzweig told Courthouse News on Thursday. “I was frankly astonished by some of the arguments made by the state – by the prosecutor in the trial court, and the attorney general in the Supreme Court.”
Rosenzweig and attorney Natalie Dickson, both of Little Rock, argued at trial that Stanton’s actions were justifiable self-defense.
Stanton, 54, is expected to stand trial for a fourth time sometime next year.
Barrett’s second term as the elected prosecuting attorney for the Eighth Judicial District South ends when she assumes office for the District 4, Position 2 seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals on Jan. 1.
The Arkansas Ethics Commission earlier this year found no misconduct on Barrett’s part, and she has disputed that any jurors were swayed by her campaign’s electioneering at the courthouse.