LITTLE ROCK — A man who was forced to go to trial with an attorney he did not want is entitled to a new trial, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 5-2 decision, the high court reversed Ulises Arroyo Jr.’s conviction of possession of methamphetamine, possession of drug paraphernalia, maintaining a drug premises and simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms. Arroyo had been sentenced in Lonoke County Circuit Court to 29 years in prison for the offenses.
On the day before Arroyo’s trial, he asked that a new lawyer, Edward Adcock, be allowed to represent him, that his trial be postponed and that he and his wife, Giselle Arroyo, be tried separately. Up to that point, both Arroyos had been represented by lawyer James Hensley.
Lonoke County Circuit Judge Phillip Thomas Whiteaker agreed to sever the cases but said that because Hensley was prepared to go to trial, he would not allow Arroyo to change lawyers and would not postpone his trial.
In its majority opinion Thursday, the Supreme Court said that when a defendant seeks to change lawyers, the judge must weigh the defendant’s right to choice of counsel against the public’s interest in prompt dispensation of justice. In the present case, however, the judge never asked crucial questions such as why Arroyo wanted to change lawyers or how much time Adock would need to prepare for trial, the court said.
"The record before us indicates that the circuit court viewed any delay as unacceptable, which we conclude was unreasonable and arbitrary under the circumstances," Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in the majority opinion.
Joining Hannah in the majority were Justices Karen Baker, Courtney Hudson Goodson, Josephine Linker Hart and Cliff Hoofman.
Justices Donald Corbin and Paul Danielson dissented. Danielson wrote for the minority that Arroyo’s requests for a new lawyer and postponement of his trial were made in the context of addressing a potential conflict if the same lawyer represented both him and his wife.
"The court determined that the conflict could be resolved without taking the attorney prepared for trial off of the case," Danielson wrote in the minority opinion. "Therefore the court was inclined to proceed with the trial as scheduled. With no other information before it to consider, I do not believe the court was required to do anything further."