LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court on Thursday denied a capital murder defendant’s request for a delay of his trial, but it ordered a review of the court rules that allowed the trial in a death penalty case to be set just six months after the lead defense attorney was appointed.
Daniel Pedraza appealed to the high court on Oct. 5, after Drew County Circuit Judge Bynum Gibson denied his request to postpone his trial. At that time the trial was set for 17 days later, or six months after the appointment of Jeff Rosenzweig as lead defense attorney.
In oral arguments before the Supreme Court last month, Rosenzweig acknowledged that asking the high court to delay a trial was unprecedented but said that because the state is seeking the death penalty for Pedraza, the case deserved special attention. Pedraza is charged in the beating death of 2-year-old Aubriana Coke.
Rosenzweig also said Pedraza’s defense is complex and requires interviewing family members who live in Mexico and do not speak English, as well as obtaining mental evaluations of Pedraza, an Iraq war veteran.
The Supreme Court said in its opinion Thursday that it would not grant Pedraza’s request because he has another remedy available, namely, appealing the results of his trial.
The court made note of, and rejected, Pedraza’s argument that direct appeal was not an adequate remedy because if the case went to trial prematurely, the jury could hear testimony that was flawed because of insufficient information — testimony that would be admissible in any retrial.
"The concern posited by Pedraza applies to every criminal case reversed on appeal and remanded for retrial," Justice Cliff Hoofman wrote in the opinion.
Justices pointed out during oral arguments, however, that merely by virtue of his appeal Pedraza has obtained a delay of his trial by several months.
The court’s opinion Thursday included an acknowledgment that defense attorneys have an obligation to be thorough in preparing for death-penalty cases, including investigating evidence that may mitigate against the death penalty or rebut aggravating evidence that may be presented by the state.
The court said it would direct its Committee on Criminal Practice to consider whether changes should be made to the rules of criminal procedure "in light of the unique demands of cases involving the death penalty."
In a separate opinion, Justice Josephine Hart said she concurred in the decision to reject Pedraza’s request for a continuance and said circuit courts, prosecutors and lawyers for the state should be required to receive annual continuing education in the specific demands of death-penalty cases, as the Arkansas Public Defender Commission currently requires of defense lawyers who handle capital cases.