In a 5-2 decision on Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the capital murder conviction of a Lincoln County man sentenced to life in prison for the September 2011 shooting death of 22-year-old Kwame Turner of Star City.
The court said Justin Jamaille Thornton is entitled to a new trial because the state did not prove the homicide was premeditated and deliberate.
At a bench trial in February 2013, prosecutors said Turner was shot from from behind while sitting in a chair at Thornton’s home, then taken to Brooklyn Road, east of Star City, where his body was discovered the following day by a Lincoln County Road Department employee who was grading the road.
Thornton argued on appeal that Circuit Court Judge Berlin Jones erred in denying his motions for a directed verdict because the evidence submitted by the State was insufficient to prove the charge of capital murder. More specifically, Thornton claimed the prosecution failed to establish that he acted with premeditation and deliberation, which is the requisite intent to establish capital murder. In support of his claim, Thornton argued that all of the evidence presented was circumstantial and left the judge to engage in speculation and conjecture in determining guilt.
The State countered that Judge Jones correctly denied the directed verdict motions because there was sufficient proof to establish Thornton’s guilt. The State further argued that circumstantial proof may constitute sufficient evidence and does so in this case.
The Arkansas Supreme Court pointed out that Judge Jones said he reached his decision based on the reasoning that it is not possible for a person to pick up a gun, walk behind a seated person and shoot him in the back of the head without premeditation and deliberation. The judge said no evidence was presented to show that the shooting was unintentional.
The judge’s reasoning, according to the Supreme Court, involved speculation about how the shooting happened and shifted the burden of proof to Thornton.
“Because the circuit court engaged in speculation in determining that Thornton acted with premeditation and deliberation and improperly shifted the burden of proof when weighing the evidence, we must reverse Thornton’s conviction for capital murder,” Justice Donald Corbin wrote in the majority opinion. “While the evidence cannot sustain the charge of capital murder, we offer no opinion about whether it would sustain a lesser offense.”
Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Justices Paul Danielson, Cliff Hoofman and Josephine Hart joined in the majority opinion. Justice Courtney Goodson and Justice Karen Baker dissented.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Goodson said The majority failed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State.
She said there was substantial evidence to support a capital murder conviction, including physical evidence in Thornton’s home and car and testimony that Thornton was at his residence with Turner on the night of the homicide.
“The State also presented witness testimony that Thornton had been seen shooting a .45 caliber High Point semiautomatic handgun, the same type of gun that the fired the bullet retrieved from the victim’s body,” Goodson wrote in her dissenting opinion. “Finally, there was testimony that Thornton wrote a threatening letter regarding the testimony of three witnesses for the State. The entirety of the evidence, when viewed appropriately in the light most favorable to the State, constitutes substantial evidence supporting Thornton’s conviction for capital murder.”