The state Supreme Court today upheld, on a 4-3 vote, a Pulaski County robbery conviction of Hutson Burks despite unanimous agreement that the prosecutor's office used testimony obtained improperly by promise of reduction of a sentence already in effect for the critical witness. It sharply criticized the prosecuting attorney's office, which struck the deal, and Judge Barry Sims for allowing it. The court referred the witness' attorney, the prosecutor's office and the trial judge to disciplinary bodies for review.
The majority decided, however, that the defendant still received a fair trial because the witness was cross-examined about her motivation for testimony and the improperly struck deal came after the testimony. This was the same finding made in an earlier decision by the state Court of Appeals, which also sharply criticized the judge and prosecutor.
A sharp dissent from Justice Elana Wills, joined by Chief Justice Jim Hannah and Donald Corbin, saw it differently. They would have reversed. Hannah wrote:
While I agree that referring counsel to the Arkansas Committee on Professional Conduct and the circuit judge to the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission is proper to address misconduct by those referred, the referrals do nothing to address the possible injury to the public trust and confidence in the impartiality and the integrity of the judiciary. Having been apprised of this apparent abuse, we may not simply refer the actors to our Committee and Commission and imagine we have done our job. We must take action to preserve the integrity of the judiciary where it appears that the law has been violated and a void order has been entered.
Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley said, "We screwed up." He indicated his office would review the case further.