LITTLE ROCK — A man convicted of killing five people in Garland County is entitled to a new trial because an admittedly biased juror was not struck from the jury at his capital murder trial, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court ordered a new trial for Samuel Lee Conway, who was convicted in Garland County Circuit Court on five counts of capital murder, two counts of aggravated residential burglary and four counts of theft of property and was sentenced to seven life sentences, five of them without possibility of parole, plus 90 years.
Conway was convicted in the shooting deaths of Jeremy Gentry, 24; his girlfriend, Kristyn Warneke, 19; his parents, Edward Gentry Jr., 55 and Pamela Gentry, 52; and his grandfather Edward Gentry Sr., 80. The victims’ bodies were found in a trailer park in Pearcy on Nov. 12, 2009.
During Conway’s trial, a juror, identified in the court’s opinion as "Juror Sheets," sent a note to Garland County Circuit Judge Homer Wright stating, "I don’t think I can be a fair juror anymore."
Wright took Sheets into his Chambers, with attorneys present, and asked him about the note. Sheets told Wright he had made up his mind about the case.
Conway’s attorney asked, "So you’re saying that you don’t believe you’re fair and impartial right now?"
"Not to him, sir," Sheets said.
Conway’s attorney asked Sheets if he would be able to deliberate.
"No, sir," Sheets said.
The defense moved to strike Sheets from the jury, but Wright denied the motion.
"I’m not gonna excuse him because I don’t think that he’s expressed anything other than the fact that he has formed an opinion, which you have acknowledged jurors do then they go in and discuss it," Wright said at the time. "If he reported that he refused to deliberate once … that is another matter. But I do not think that anybody can sit through three days of testimony and not begin the formation of an opinion."
Conway argued on appeal that the judge’s decision meant that he was denied a fair and impartial trial. The state argued most of the state’s evidence had been presented by the time Sheets sent his note, and Conway presented little defense, so allowing Sheets to remain on the jury did not affect the outcome of the trial.
In its unanimous opinion Thursday, the high court said Conway did not receive a fair trial.
"The fact that the state had very little remaining evidence to present is not relevant, nor is the amount of evidence presented in Conway’s defense," Justice Karen Baker wrote in the opinion. "The critical fact is that Sheets unequivocally stated that he could not be fair and impartial and that he could not deliberate, yet he remained on the jury."