From Mara Leveritt, reporting from Ashdown:
Circuit Judge Charles Yeargan
TIM HOWARD: Wins new trial order.
today ordered a new trial for Tim Howard,
a Little River County man who was sentenced to death in 1999 for the 1998 murder of Brian and Shannon Day. The Arkansas Supreme Court
had sent Howard’s case back to the lower court after finding that evidence concerning DNA testing that might have changed the outcome of Howard’s trial was withheld from defense attorneys.
Today, in Yeargan’s court in Ashdown, prosecuting attorney Brian Cheshire agreed that the information had been withheld, though he argued — and the judge agreed — that the material had not been intentionally denied.
Only one witness, the lab technician who conducted the original DNA test, testified at today’s hearing. Charity Holland
acknowleged that at least four mistakes occurred during the test on hairs that were said to be from Howard, and that the number of errors in a single case was rare. However, she maintained that the tests were immediately done over using new DNA samples and that the results submitted to the state were accurate. At Howard’s trial she testified that the hairs and blood taken from Howard were a “match.”
The Arkansas Supreme Court, in sending the case back for this hearing, noted that those hairs were the primary evidence linking Howard to the crime. Yeargan had to consider whether the information that was withheld would have been exculpatory for Howard or could have been used to impeach the state’s evidence. He decided that it could have been “impeaching.” Yeargan said he could not know how a jury would have interpreted the information about the testing errors if it had been presented at Howard’s trial, and if the defense had had an opportunity to cross examine Holland about it. “Nobody was on the same playing field,” Yeargan said. For that reason, “in the interest of justice” the judge ruled that he was ordering a new trial.
Yeargan added that "it seems like there's a cloud over this case," and had been for years. When the Howard's case went to the Arkansas Supreme Court on direct appeal, before the DNA issue came to light, three of seven justices said there was not enough evidence to convict him, let alone sentence him to death.
Once the order is entered, Howard will be returned to the custody of Little River County. It is not known if the county will retry him.
Leveritt wrote about the problems with the DNA evidence
in the Times
in February 2011.