Johnathan Woods, the Bradley County man sentenced to life without parole, plus 40 years for the March 2014 kidnapping and murder of Samantha Poole, has lost another appeal.
The Arkansas Supreme Court recently affirmed the Drew County Circuit Court’s order denying Wood’s petition for post conviction relief.
For reversal, Woods argued that Circuit Court Judge Sam Pope erred when he denied without a hearing Woods’ claim that his attorney was ineffective because he compared Woods’ case to the O.J. Simpson case, and Woods’ appellate attorney was ineffective by failing to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence on direct appeal.
Woods, in January 2016, was convicted of capital murder and kidnapping in the March 14, 2014 shooting death of 30-year-old Samantha Poole, of Cleveland County.
The kidnapping and shooting occurred at the Save-A-Lot store in Monticello where customers reported that a man was assaulting a woman the parking lot. It was later determined that the man was Jonathan Woods, then 32, of Bradley County, and the woman was Samantha Poole.
The incident began inside the store when Woods grabbed Poole by the hair and dragged her outside. Witnesses reported that Woods eventually forced Poole at gunpoint into the driver’s seat of a Cadillac. One eyewitness reported hearing gunshots and seeing Poole exit the vehicle once before Woods “brought her back.”
A Drew County deputy, James Slaughter, testified at trial that he was on his way to the Save-A-Lot when he saw the Cadillac pulling out of the parking lot. Slaughter blocked the Cadillac with his vehicle. Once the Cadillac was stopped, Woods shot Poole multiple times, killing her. Slaughter shot Woods during the confrontation, but Woods survived.
A Drew County jury convicted Woods of capital murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced to life without parole for the murder and 40 years for the kidnapping.
Woods filed an appeal alleging that his trial attorney and his appellate attorney provided constitutionally ineffective assistance, including his trial attorney’s references to the O.J. Simpson case and appellate attorney’s failure to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence that are the bases of his appeal.
In response, the State argued that Woods did not show that he was prejudiced by any discussion of the Simpson case, did not explain how his attorney’s response to a juror’s comment about the case was ineffective, and did not demonstrate that any argument by his appellate attorney as to the sufficiency of the evidence would have been successful.
The Drew County Circuit Court issued written findings and denied the petition without a hearing. Woods filed an appeal.
In the 1984 Strickland v. Washington case, the court outlined a two-part test to determine whether an attorney’s assistance was effective. First, the defendant must prove that his attorney’s performance was deficient. Second, the defendant must prove that the deficient performance was prejudicial to the extent that he was deprived of the right to a fair trial.
Woods first argued that his trial attorney was ineffective because he referred to the Simpson case. His attorney first mentioned O.J. Simpson’s case in general voir dire.
A potential juror later stated in voir dire that, “we learned that from the O.J. case, didn’t we?” The remark was made in response to Woods’ attorney’s statements that an accused person has the right to not testify, and nothing negative could be inferred from such a decision. Woods’ attorney responded that “we learned a lot from the O.J. case.”
Although the circuit court erroneously stated that a juror first mentioned the case, the court concluded that Woods’ trial attorney’s references to the Simpson case fell within the range of reasonable professional assistance. Woods’ attorney asked the entire panel for a show of hands as to who thought Simpson was guilty. When he received little response, Woods’ trial attorney explained the reason for the question:
Here’s the reason I asked the question. All of you have said that you believe that a defendant is innocent until they are proven guilty. But you say it – But you see, sometimes you don’t believe it. Because what do we know about O.J. Simpson? Twelve men and women have found him not guilty. Okay.
You may think that’s a lawyer trick, but it’s not. It illustrates my point. And so, I guess my point is, is that can all of you commit – I understand how you get to where you are. But can you commit to us that you will, indeed, follow that principle that, indeed, a defendant is innocent until the government proves him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Can I see the hands of all those who will commit to that?
“Matters of trial strategy and tactics, even if arguably improvident, are not grounds for a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel,” Justice Courtney Goodson wrote in the Arkansas Supreme Court’s majority opinion. “It is clear that trial counsel’s references to the Simpson case were part of a strategy to identify potential jurors who might view his client unfavorably. The files and the record show that Woods is not entitled to relief, and the circuit court’s findings sufficiently reflect that fact. The circuit court did not clearly err in determining that the references to the Simpson case fell within the range of reasonable professional assistance or in denying without a hearing Woods’s petition as to this point.”
Woods next argued that his appellant attorney was ineffective because he did not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence on direct appeal. Woods noted that the only issue that his appellate attorney raised was that the prosecution excused jurors in a racially discriminatory manner. Alternatively, Woods argued that his case should be remanded for the Drew County Circuit Court to enter more specific findings on this point.
At trial, Woods’ attorney moved for a directed verdict on the kidnapping charge, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that Poole was restrained against her will because she could have driven away when she was in the vehicle alone while Woods was walking around to the passenger door. His attorney also argued that there was no evidence that he had any intention of inflicting injury upon Poole or terrorizing her when he forced her into the vehicle. He argued that because the evidence was insufficient to support the kidnapping charge, by definition there could be no capital murder.
In response to Woods’ motion, the State argued that evidence from events inside the store demonstrated that a kidnapping had already occurred. The State also pointed to testimony that Poole was screaming that Woods would kill her, and that Woods had forced her into the vehicle at gunpoint. The State contended that a jury could have reasonably believed that the facts demonstrated that Woods was either in the act of kidnapping Poole, or in flight therefrom. The circuit court agreed and denied the motion.
In his petition, Woods argued that his appellate attorney failed to “comb the record” and present his insufficiency of the evidence claim to the appellate court. Woods cited no facts to support his contention that a meritorious argument was not raised on appeal.
Goodson said it is Woods’ obligation to show in his petition that his attorney failed to raise some meritorious issue on appeal.
“Woods’s petition failed to identify any such issue, and the circuit court did not clearly err by denying relief on this point,” Goodson said. “Additionally, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, and considering only evidence that supports the verdict, we conclude that substantial evidence supports the verdict. Woods therefore cannot make a clear showing that his appellate counsel failed to raise a meritorious issue on appeal. Finally, because Woods identified no facts to support his appellate insufficiency argument below, his alternative argument that remand is required for more specific findings is also not persuasive.”
In her concurring opinion, Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Josephine Linker Hart said the case must be affirmed because the Drew County Circuit court did not clearly err in disposing of the argument that Woods actually made in his petition.
“I write separately because the majority has utterly disregarded our preservation jurisprudence to craft a holding that ignores the most basic precepts of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984),” Hart wrote. “As Justice Goodson recently wrote in another briefed Rule 37 appeal…, ‘an appellant cannot change the grounds for an argument for the first time on appeal.’ As a consequence, the Watson court refused to consider the argument. Inexplicably, the majority has abandoned this well-settled rule.”
In his Rule 37 petition, Woods argued that his attorney knew or should have known that his representation did not hinge on the O.J. Simpson case, but on the facts proven in his own case.
“Inflaming a all white Jury about a Prejudicial case like O.J.’s could have Prejudiced the secret minds of the Jurors to form a Prejudice opinion in their minds towards the Petitioner,” Woods argued. “The trial records will show where (a prospective juror) initiated his opinion in his mind about the O.J. Simpson case and defense counsel agreed that we learned a lot from the O.J. Case. The trial court on its own motion could have requested that such comments and opinion were inappropriate to the court and other Jury members that heard the comments that we learned a lot about the O.J. Case, Who is the “WE” the (prospective juror) was referring to? What did we learn about the O.J. Case? under United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984) Prejudice can result when defense counsel fails to Represent his client Properly. Trial Counsel’s Performance in this record must be examined under the test of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) to determine was the comments Prejudicial to the Petitioner, did the Jurors Possess a Prejudice opinion towards the Petitioner from the O.J. Simpson case since he to was on trial for killing a white woman. The facts of this claim can only be developed at a evidentiary hearing. Malcom v. Houston, 518 F.3d 624 (8th Cir. 2008); Knowles v Mirza Yance, 129 S. Ct. l411 (2009).”
The State opposed Woods’ argument saying the prospective juror brought up the O.J. Simpson case during the questioning concerning the right of a defendant not to testify. “The defendant suggests that he could have been prejudiced by the comments, but he makes no showing of the same, and fails to explain how his counsel was ineffective in responding to the comment.”
In its order disposing of Woods’ petition, the circuit court said the record reflects that the mention (of the O.J. Simpson case) started with a prospective juror while the defense attorney was questioning the jury panel. “Any questioning by the defense counsel regarding that matter was certainly within the province of defense counsel exercising independent professional judgment in his approach to the issue. While it might have been improper for defense counsel to bring up the subject, he didn’t. He just addressed it when it was brought up and the defendant made no showing of a failure to operate within the wide range of effectiveness provided by law and trial counsel,” the circuit court wrote.
Hart said the only issue before the Drew County Circuit Court was whether Woods’ trial attorney was ineffective in how he responded to a remark made by the potential juror about the O.J. Simpson case.
“The argument raised on appeal and addressed by the majority is, of course, much broader,” she wrote. “… this court should not have addressed the argument that Mr. Woods makes on appeal.”
Hart said if she believed that Woods’ argument “comported with our preservation jurisprudence,” she would have dissented from the majority’s decision.
She said the majority apparently lost sight of the relief that Woods requested: an evidentiary hearing.
“In the case before us, the circuit court did not find that analogizing Mr. Woods’s case to the O.J. Simpson trial was reasonable trial strategy,” Hart wrote. “In fact, the circuit court suggested otherwise: ‘While it might have been improper for defense counsel to bring up the subject, he didn’t.’ Perhaps that was why the majority abandoned its role as an appellate court and made its own findings. In my view, the majority’s findings are clearly erroneous.”
While judicial scrutiny of an attorney’s performance must be highly deferential, trial strategy must nonetheless be reasonable, Hart said, citing the Strickland case.
“There is nothing reasonable about comparing Mr. Woods’s case to the O.J. Simpson case,” Hart said. “Like Simpson, Mr. Woods is an African American who was accused of brutally murdering his Caucasian girlfriend. Simpson was famously found not guilty in what is regarded as the trial of the century. Furthermore, while the O.J. Simpson trial took place over twenty years before Woods’s trial, a docudrama about the sensational murder and trial debuted February 2, 2016, which was less than a week after Woods’s trial. Promotion of the FX network series, however, had begun in October 2015, and flooded the airways. Furthermore, O.J. Simpson remained in the news because he was charged and convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery in 2008 and was up for parole in 2017. It is widely believed that Simpson got away with murder. It is inconceivable that any lawyer would bring up the O.J. Simpson case to a venire from which an all-white jury was selected. Calling it trial strategy ignores the fact that the purpose of a defense attorney is to defend his or her client, not ensure the client’s conviction.”
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