Lawyer argues condemned killer deserves new trial


LITTLE ROCK — An attorney for death-row inmate Rickey Dale Newman argued Thursday before the state Supreme Court that Newman should be granted a new trial because he was not competent to stand trial at the time of his 2002 conviction in Crawford County Circuit Court.

An attorney for the state argued there was sufficient evidence to support the trial judge’s ruling that Newman was competent at the time.

The high court heard oral arguments but did not immediately issue a ruling in the appeal by Newman, now 56. Newman has been sentenced to die for the 2001 mutilation death of 46-year-old Marie Cholette at a transient camp in Van Buren.

Julie Brain, formerly of the federal public defender’s office in Little Rock and now a private lawyer based in Philadelphia, told the justices that Newman has severe brain impairment, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and an IQ of 67.

She acknowledged that he initially told police and later told the jury at his trial that he was guilty and deserved execution, but she said he did so because of mental illness and suicidal impulses. She argued that he was wrongly convicted and is innocent of Cholette’s murder.

“He knew he was innocent, but he wanted to die,” she said.

Deputy Attorney General Darnisa Johnson argued that despite his brain damage and low IQ, Newman exhibited an understanding of his case. She said that in a series of letters to the trial court he showed that he understood the charges against him and his rights.

“Due process only requires that a defendant have an understanding of the essentials,” she said.

Brain said some of the letters were not in Newman’s handwriting, suggesting that someone wrote them for him. She said other letters were in his handwriting but exceeded Newman’s reading and writing ability, which she said is below a first-grade level.

“He could not have written them on his own,” Brain said.

Johnson said there was no evidence in the record that Newman had help writing the letters. She also noted that during a mental evaluation, Newman became upset and said he did not want to talk about his traumatic childhood because he did not want to bring it all back and then have to deal with it all by himself.

Newman’s actions showed that he was able to understand the potential consequences of actions, Johnson argued.

Brain argued that Newman would have helped his case by talking about his childhood, but his mental illness was so severe that it prevented him from acting in his own best interest. He lacked rationality, she said.

Justice Paul Danielson asked Brain if she was arguing that Newman was like a person who knows it is raining but does not know to come in out of the rain. Brain said that was correct.

The justices did not indicate when they would rule.