Ruling in Arkansas Arson Case Could Hinder Prosecutors

June 7, 2011

An Arkansas Supreme Court ruling in the case of a mentally ill man charged with setting a fire that killed his grandmother could hinder prosecutors handling cases involving juveniles, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

In a decision written by Justice Donald Corbin, the court struck down a provision in the state Juvenile Code allowing prosecutors to appeal a circuit judge’s decision to move a teen’s case from regular court to juvenile court.

State law gives prosecutors the option of trying people 14 and older as adults if they are charged with violent crimes, escape or trying to recruit children for a gang, but defense attorneys can ask judges to move the cases to juvenile court.

In a sharp dissent, Justice Robert Brown said the ruling barring prosecutors’ from appealing judges’ decisions in those cases overturned 22 years of precedent. He also said the logic used by the majority could eventually be used to restrict the rights of teenage criminal defendants who might challenge decisions to prosecute them as adults.

“The ripple effect … will have wide-ranging implications,” Brown wrote.

The decision also means 20-year-old Anthony Goins of Sherwood could be released from custody within seven months, even if he is convicted of setting the June 2008 fire that killed 72-year-old Marietta Mae Goins at her home in Sherwood.

Goins has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and arson and says he’s being framed because investigators are frustrated they can’t determine how the fire started.

His public defender asked to have the charges against him transferred to juvenile court in September, when he was 19. A Pulaski County judge approved the request, over prosecutors’ objections.

Because juvenile court proceedings are kept secret, it’s likely that whatever happens with Goins between now and his 21st birthday on Jan. 6 won’t be publicly disclosed.

Thomas Kendrick, an assistant public defender who represented Goins during an appeal, said he doesn’t think the Supreme Court’s ruling will meaningfully affect prosecutors, because juvenile defendants are more likely to appeal decisions to prosecute them as adults.

The court gave more weight to a teenager’s Constitutional right of appeal than court rules allowing prosecutors to appeal, Kendrick said.

Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office, said state attorneys are “giving serious consideration to requesting a rehearing” of the case by the court.

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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