An Ashley County man sentenced to 50 years in prison for second-degree murder and tampering with evidence recently was granted a new trial when the Arkansas Court of Appeals, in a split decision, found that the 10th Judicial District Circuit Court should have granted his motion for a mistrial.
Erskine Flamer, Jr., 25, fatally stabbed 25-year-old Deunte Stanley, on July 21, 2019 during an altercation at a Hamburg park. Flamer arrived at the park first with his three-year-old son. Flamer’s girlfriend (the child’s mother) was also at the park that day and testified at trial that Stanley approached Flamer and started shoving and threatening him. Testimony indicated that Stanley was the initial aggressor.
During the shoving, Stanley reached into his pocket with his free hand, and witnesses heard Stanley threaten Flamer saying, “You better kiss your son goodbye.” After Stanley pushed him several times, Flamer “poked” Stanley.
Witnesses testified that they did not realize Stanley had been stabbed until he lifted his shirt and they saw blood. Stanley then collapsed and later died at a hospital.
Flamer did not testify at trial, but the prosecution played a video of his statement taken by the Hamburg Police Department. In the video, Flamer said he was afraid of Stanley during the altercation, and he was in fear for his life after he saw Stanley’s hand move in his pocket. He also stated that he did not mean to kill him and became distraught when officers informed him that Stanley had died.
The existence of the two pocket knives found on Stanley was not included in any of the police reports or witness statements. There was no evidence introduced by any party or witnesses that Stanley was armed. The assumption was that he was unarmed. The defense was unaware of the pocket knives until the prosecution disclosed it during jury deliberations. Flamer’s attorney immediately requested a mistrial.
The jury had been instructed on self-defense, which is a defense only if Flamer “reasonably believed that Deunte Stanley was using or about to use unlawful, deadly, physical force.”
In his motion for mistrial, Flamer contended that the pocket knives 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 (the judge) “wanted to see what the jury would do.”
The jury subsequently convicted Flamer of second-degree murder and tampering with evidence. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison and fined $2,500 fine for murder. He also received a three-year sentence and fined $500 for tampering with evidence. The sentences were ordered to run concurrent.
At the conclusion of the proceedings, Flamer’s attorney renewed his motion for a mistrial. Once again, the court denied his motion.
On appeal, Erskine Flamer, Jr., argued that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying his motion for a mistrial after the prosecution disclosed during jury deliberations that two pocket knives were found on Stanley following Stanley’s death at the hospital.
The Arkansas Court of Appeals, in a recent 4-2 decision, agreed and ordered a new trial.
“Because the evidence was not disclosed to Flamer until the jury was already deliberating, the error is beyond repair,” Judge Raymond R. Abramson said, writing for the majority. “There is a fundamental difference between the killing of an unarmed person versus an armed person––regardless of the nature of the deadly weapon employed. In the instant case, the entire tenor of the defense was affected by the absence of the armed-victim evidence. Accordingly, we hold that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying Flamer’s motion for mistrial.”
Abramson said the presence of the pocket knives supports Flamer’s and his witnesses’ testimony that Stanley reached for his pocket before Flamer stabbed him and bolsters his self-defense argument.
“We conclude that a mistrial was required in this case,” Abramson wrote. “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 her dissenting opinion, nearly equal in length to the majority opinion, Judge Stephanie Potter Barrett maintained that the evidence regarding the pocket knives was not relevant, would not have been admissible, and would not have changed the outcome of the trial. Therefore, the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in denying the request for a mistrial.
“Nothing in the testimony suggests Flamer knew Stanley had any knives on his person or believed he might have a knife,” she wrote. “Because he had no actual knowledge or belief that Stanley was armed with a knife, the fact that Stanley had two pocketknives is simply not relevant; if not relevant, then it is not admissible, which was the basis of the circuit court’s denial of Flamer’s motion for mistrial. The majority assumes that the knives were located in the same pocket Stanley had his hand in. However, there is nothing in the record to reflect that. …”
Abramson, however, maintained that the existence of the pocket knives is “paramount” to the case.
“There was testimony from several witnesses that Stanley was the aggressor, he threatened Flamer, and Stanley put his hand in his pocket during the altercation,” Abramson wrote. “That the victim was armed bears significantly on every aspect of the case.”
Abramson said the admissibility of the pocket knives is not for the Arkansas Court of Appeals to decide because it was not argued on appeal and there is no clear ruling from the circuit court on the issue.
Judges Rita W. Gruber, Larry D. Vaught, and Mike Murphy agree.
Judges Stephanie Potter Barrett and Mark Klappenbach dissent.