The Arkansas Court of Appeals reversed the guilty verdict and ordered a new trial in the case of Erskine Flamer Jr., who had been convicted of the second degree murder of Deunte Stanley and tampering with physical evidence. An Ashley County Circuit Court jury set the penalty at 50 years in prison and a $2,500 fine for the murder as well as three years in prison and a $500 fine for tampering with evidence.
The charges came after a dispute in Pine Street Park in Hamburg on July 21, 2019. The court opinion notes that Flamer and Deunte Stanley were involved in an altercation in the park. Flamer’s girlfriend and his son’s mother, Laporsha Franklin, was present and testified that Stanley approached Flamer and started shoving and threatening him. Witnesses said after a pushing conflict Flamer “poked” Stanley, and that Stanley collapsed. Stanley died from a stab wound while being carried to the Ashley County Medical Center.
During the testimony at the trial, there was no mention of the two pocket knives which Stanley possessed until the jury started deliberating. Nor did the police reports or witness statements include any information on the knives. After the information became known, Flamer’s attorney, Chuck Gibson, immediately requested a mistrial, which Judge Bynum Gibson denied.
On appeal, Flamer’s attorney “contended that the pocketknives were relevant to his defense and that at trial, he would have relied on the fact that Stanley had been armed. The circuit court did not grant the mistrial and proceeded with the case, indicating that he wanted ‘to see what the jury would do’,” the opinion states.
After the jury returned guilty verdicts and set the penalty, the defense attorney renewed the motion for a mistrial “with the sole argument on appeal is that the circuit court abused its discretion by denying his motion for mistrial.”
The opinion notes that witnesses said that Stanley, the aggressor, had put his hands into a pocket, and, “That the victim was armed bears significantly on every aspect of the case.”
Judge Raymond Abramson’s majority opinion notes that a mistrial is a “drastic remedy and rests within the discretion of the circuit court.”
Such a remedy, he said, “is appropriate only when there has been an error so prejudicial that justice cannot be served by continuing with the trial or when the fundamental fairness of the trial has been manifestly affected.” The majority opinion found that Judge Gibson’s opinion created an error that was “beyond repair.”
While noting that there is a question of whether or not the information on the pocket knives could have been introduced so late in the proceedings, the majority holds that “The fact that this evidence was not disclosed until jury deliberations is an error so prejudicial that justice could not be served by continuing with the trial. A mistrial was the appropriate remedy here because the fundamental fairness of the trial was manifestly affected when this evidence came to light, and we hold that the circuit court abused its discretion in refusing to grant a mistrial. Flamer’s convictions must be reversed, and we remand this case for a new trial.”
In the minority opinion, Judge Stephanie Potter Barrett argues she believes that the information on the knives would not have been admissible, and Judge Gibson’s opinion would not have changed the result of the trial.
The defense, the judge wrote, “cannot now claim that he was fearful of knives he had no knowledge of. A reasonable belief that deadly physical force is being used or about to be used takes something more than putting your hand in your pocket, regardless of the existence of pocketknives, even if they were, in fact, located in the same pocket. It would take communication of a threat of death or some other indication that deadly physical force was about to be used. There simply was no evidence of such in this case.”
“Because the pocketknives were not admissible, and the outcome of the trial would not change, I cannot say that the circuit court abused its discretion or that Flamer was manifestly prejudiced,” Judge Barrett closed in her dissent.
Flamer, now 25, is being held in the Ester Unit of the Ark. Dept. of Correction in Pine Bluff. He began serving his term in August, 2019, and, if the new trial results in the same penalty, he will qualify for parole in May, 2032.
Judges Rita Gruber, Larry Vaught and Mike Murphy agreed with Judge Abramson’s majority opinion with Judge Mark Klappenbach concurring with the dissent. The opinions were announced on Wednesday, April 21.