Prosecutors

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The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a man’s murder conviction Thursday after finding that the prosecutor improperly campaigned in the courthouse during the trial.

In the Dec. 17 ruling, Associate Justice Shawn Womack wrote that conduct by Stephanie Potter Barrett, the Miller County prosecuting attorney who won an open seat in March on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, “has no place in the administration of justice and should not have been permitted.”

Courthouse News Service has coverage.

The trial was the third for Marvin Stanton, an Arkansas man who was sentenced to life in prison for shooting and killing another man following a fight over a parking spot at a gas station in 2015. The first conviction was reversed on direct appeal because of improper admission of character evidence. A mistrial was then declared in his second trial.

On the first day of this trial, according to the opinion, one of Barrett’s family members solicited signatures on her behalf in the courthouse. Prospective jurors were asked to sign her election petitions as they entered the courthouse, and her campaign materials were placed on the bailiff’s security station.

After the defense counsel learned of the campaigning and raised questions, the opinion said the deputy prosecutor claimed that a sitting circuit court judge suggested that Barrett solicit signatures from prospective jurors and also engaged in the practice.

Barrett was instructed to turn in the signed petition sheets, which showed that four of the nine collected signatures belonged to prospective jurors. One of those jurors was ultimately selected for the trial.

Stanton moved for a mistrial, and the circuit court questioned each juror about the impact of the campaigning on their impartiality. According to the opinion, the circuit court was satisfied with their responses and refused to grant Stanton’s motion.

He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years for a firearm enhancement.

In overturning Stanton’s conviction Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court said the state acknowledged that Barrett campaigned and solicited signatures from jurors and prospective jurors but failed to concede that it was inappropriate or resulted in an appearance of impropriety.

“We hold that Barrett’s actions were, at minimum, inappropriate and gave rise to an appearance of impropriety,” Womack wrote in the opinion. “Her actions were also per se improper in the context of the fair and impartial administration of justice.”

The court noted that prospective jurors “became a captive audience bombarded with election petitions” from Barrett and at least two other circuit judges.

“This is an abuse and exploitation of the judicial system and the fundamental civic responsibility of jury service,” Womack wrote.

Stanton’s case will be returned to Miller County for a fourth trial.

Barrett will assume her seat on the Arkansas Court of Appeals on Jan. 1. According to Courthouse News Service, the Arkansas Ethics Commission found no misconduct on her part earlier this year.