The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday rejected an appeal from Derek Sales, a 53-year-old Bradley County man sentenced to death for the April 2005 murder of Willie York, a frail, disabled bootlegger who sold beer by the can from his home.
York, 56, suffered from advanced rheumatoid arthritis and needed assistance in caring for himself. He weighed 102 pounds, had little use of his hands, and could not walk. He spent most of his time in his living room where he had a bed and a recliner. He would sit in his recliner during the day until he was moved from his recliner and placed in bed for the night. He typically went to bed at 10 p.m., at the close of his business day.
Sales, who often visited York’s home, was aware that York used a cigar box as a cash register and as storage for some personal papers. Sales was also aware of the fact that York kept this cigar box near him at all times.
On the day of the murder, Sales was at the York home several times and purchased several beers from York. When York’s family left his home at approximately 6:30 that evening, Sales was there. Sales was still there later in the evening when York’s granddaughters brought him dinner and when York’s daughter stopped by to check on her father.
Later that night, two of York’s granddaughters went to the home to help York get into bed.
When they arrived at the house, they could not see York sitting in his recliner and then noticed a shadowy figure, whom they recognized as Sales, moving about the house.
Concerned, they called 911. One of the officers at the scene confronted Sales on the front porch of the home, and after Sales tried to flee, he was taken into custody. York was then found inside the home lying in a pool of blood on the floor. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and the medical examiner later determined that there were three possible causes of York’s death: strangulation, blunt-force trauma to the abdomen, head, and chest, and a stab wound of the neck.
On Christmas Eve 2005, while in the Warren City Jail awaiting his capital murder trial, Sales and another prisoner, armed with a soap-filled sock and lotion bottles full of hot sauce, overpowered a jailer and escaped. Sales was captured within minutes but the other prisoner, Jesus Morales still has not been located.
A Bradley County jury in 2007 convicted Sales of capital murder and aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to death for killing York and received a life sentence for robbing him.
The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld those sentences in 2008.
Sales subsequently filed a petition in Bradley County Circuit Court asking for post-conviction relief, claiming that his attorneys were ineffective. During opening statements, one of his attorneys referred to Sales’ escape. During the sentencing phase, his other attorney told the jury that if Sales was sentenced to life imprisonment, there was a possibility that he might be pardoned by the governor.
The circuit court first addressed Sales’ claim that the reference to his escape constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.
The court noted that the escape reference, made during the attorney’s opening statement, “was both unnecessary and foolish,” but pointed out that the reference was merely to the fact that Sales had escaped, and not to any specific conviction for escape. The circuit court then concluded that, because the prosecution had presented overwhelming evidence of Sales’ guilt, any reference to the escape could not have had any effect on the outcome in the guilt phase of the proceedings.
The circuit court also considered whether there could have been any “carryover” effect during the sentencing phase of the trial. The court noted that the prosecution did not request that Sales’ convictions for first-degree escape and second-degree battery be submitted to the jury as aggravators. The circuit court reasoned, however, that had the prosecution so requested, it would have allowed the convictions to be included along with Sales’ other prior convictions.
Sales suffered no prejudice from the escape reference because the his escape and battery convictions could have been properly admitted as aggravators during the sentencing portion of his trial had the prosecution chose to do so, the circuit court concluded.
The circuit court then addressed the statement made during the sentencing phase by Sales’ other attorney.
The circuit court said the attorney’s remark that there was the possibility of a pardon if Sales was sentenced to life in prison was perhaps more foolish and inept as the escape reference made by the Sales’ other attorney during opening statements.
The circuit court said while both statements demonstrated that the attorneys’ representation of Sales fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, it could not conclude that, but for those deficiencies, the result would have been any different. Therefore, Sales suffered no prejudice as neither remark had any effect on the verdict at either stage.
Sales appealed that decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court saying the circuit court erred in denying his petition.
The Supreme Court found no error and upheld the circuit court’s decision.
“… the State could have moved to introduce Sales’s conviction for escape to be used as an aggravating circumstance in the jury’s weighing of the death penalty, because the prior felony necessarily involved the use or threat of violence,” Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Donald Corbin wrote in Thursday’s opinion. “Moreover, the State submitted Sales’s other prior convictions for aggravated robbery, rape, and false imprisonment as aggravators during sentencing. In light of the aggravators that were submitted to the jury when weighing the death penalty, as well as the fact that the State could have introduced the additional conviction for first-degree escape, Sales cannot demonstrate with a reasonable probability that the outcome of his sentencing trial would have been different absent counsel’s reference to Sales’s escape. Accordingly, we cannot say that the circuit court erred in denying Sales’s post conviction petition on this ground where he failed to demonstrate prejudice at either phase of his trial.”
Tenth Judicial District Prosecutor Thomas Deen said the process has taken entirely too long but he is grateful for the court’s decision.
Asked what are likely to be the next steps in the case, Deen said typically a capital case in this posture would go next to federal district court on a petition for writ of habeas corpus. Sales can also seek United States Supreme Court review of today’s decision.
There could possibly also be further proceedings in state court under certain narrow petitions for other common law writs, Deen said.