A former death row inmate walked out of the Crawford County Detention Center on Wednesday afternoon, claiming justice had been served.
Rickey Dale Newman was released after Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Gary R. Cottrell signed an order approving a motion by special prosecutor Ron Fields of Fort Smith to dismiss the first-degree murder charge against Newman.
Newman, 60, was charged in the Feb. 7, 2001, slaying of fellow transient Marie Cholette, 46, at a hobo camp in the Lee Creek Park area in Van Buren.
“I am glad to be out … justice is served,” Newman said as he walked into the lobby of the detention center shortly after 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. “I want to thank my attorney for standing by me.”
Court-appointed attorney Julie Brain of Philadelphia, Pa., was waiting for Newman to be released as was his brother, Mark.
Brain said she would have no comment.
“My brain is all over the place and I don’t know what to say,” she said.
As Newman walked out of the detention center dressed in a gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, he asked Brain what she thought of his new uniform.
“I think it is my color,” said Newman, who admitted to being nervous after being locked up for 16 years, seven months and nine days.
Newman’s first planned stop was the Veterans Affairs Hospital to get medication for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. The sheriff’s department has provided the medicine since the summer of 2015.
Newman said he did not know where he would go after that.
“I know I will leave the state of Arkansas,” he said. “I know that.”
Cottrell’s order to dismiss the charge against Newman was filed in the Crawford County Circuit Clerk’s office at 2:07 p.m. Wednesday. Sheriff Ron Brown said he received the court’s order at 2:22 p.m., stating the charge against Newman had been dismissed
Newman had been in the Crawford County Detention Center for the past 21 months after the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2014 overturned Newman’s 2002 conviction and death sentence, ruling Newman suffered from mental disease and defects. The court order sent Newman back to Crawford County where he was to be rendered competent and retried.
In a letter to Cottrell dated Oct. 10, Fields stated he “did not believe that there is sufficient evidence available to justify the expense both to the court’s time and the cost of the public for OVERSET FOLLOWS:this case to go to a jury trial.”
Fields wrote a Sept. 21 supreme court opinion bars the state from introducing at retrial the confessions Newman made to police after his 2001 arrest and used at Newman’s one-day capital murder trial on June 10, 2002.
During the trial, Newman told jurors he killed Cholette and wanted to be sentenced to death. Newman, acting as his own attorney, testified before the jury that he killed Cholette because she falsely represented herself as a member of a transient rail riding group he called the FTRA and had hurt one of its members during an altercation.
The jury convicted Newman and, on the basis of the jury’s recommendation, Circuit Judge Floyd “Pete” Rogers sentenced him to death.
Fields wrote to Cottrell that he did not make the decision to dismiss the case lightly.
“Lengthy and strenuous investigation” was undertaken by the Van Buren Police Department, the Arkansas State Police and the state Crime Laboratory, Fields wrote.
Fields said in his letter that in preparing for trial, he had asked the state police to search the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, a large repository of major violent crime cases, to try to determine if other crimes of the type Newman was accused of had been committed around the country.
“I would also like to state I found no indications that any mistakes were made in the initial investigation and prosection,” Fields wrote.
He said 20/20 hindsight is a harsh light to focus on any case.
“But, sometimes it is necessary,” Field wrote to Cottrell. “However, I did not find any actions or non-actions that were clearly erroneous or indicated that anything other than professional and competent performance was rendered by the authorities in this matter.”
In a letter dated Oct. 2, Brain asked Cottrell to dismiss the murder charge against Newman. Brain wrote that her letter was in response to an Oct. 2 letter from Fields.
In an opinion dated Sept. 21, Associate Justice Shawn A. Womack denied an appeal by Fields to reverse the suppression of statements by Newman.
Fields had sought to reverse the suppression of statements made March 1 and March 7, 2001. He argued the circuit court erred because it did not consider the “totality of the circumstances and only considered the mental incompetency when making the ruling.”
The Sept. 21 Supreme Court opinion states that during a March 2 interrogation Newman revealed to the interrogating officers that he suffered from numerous mental illnesses and was receiving treatment and taking medication to address the deficiencies.
Cottrell on Sept. 21 notified Fields he had 10 days to notify the court if he plans to proceed with the prosecution of Newman.
In his Oct. 2 letter, Fields stated he is “in the process of preparing written statements and motions that will be filed by Friday, Oct. 13.”
This, Brain claims, is in flagrant disregard of the court’s order since the supreme court was scheduled to issue its mandate on Oct. 10.
She said a petition for a rehearing must be filed within 18 calendar days of the date of the appellate court’s decision.
“This is the latest in a long line of attempts by the state to delay the resolution of this case by any means necessary,” Brain wrote. “Mr. Newman has now been incarcerated for over 16 years for a murder that he did not commit. It has been almost five years since the Arkansas Supreme Court found that he was mentally incompetent at the time when he was originally tried and when he gave incriminating statements to police - statements that were the only meaningful evidence against him.”
Brain said it would be grossly unjust to require Newman to remain incarcerated for even a single day beyond the issuance of the mandate so that the state can file unspecified “written statements and motions” almost two weeks after being ordered by the court to advise whether it will proceed with the prosecution.
Brain requested a hearing on Oct. 11.
For the second time, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in May that Newman has not been denied his right to a speedy trial. The Supreme Court rejected Newman’s petition in a one-page order without comment.
In February 2014, Cottrell suspended proceedings in the case and committed Newman to the Arkansas State Hospital until he could be evaluated and found competent to stand trial. Cottrell ruled in November 2015 that a new evaluation of Newman showed he was competent to stand trial.
In a petition filed earlier this year, Newman’s attorneys argued that after the issuance of the November 2015 ruling that Newman was competent, a year elapsed without a retrial, so the state had violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial.
In a previous petition filed in May 2016, Newman’s attorneys argued that the state violated the speedy-trial rule by allowing more than a year to pass between Newman’s committal and the finding that he was competent. The Supreme Court rejected that petition in December, finding that the delay was attributable to Newman’s refusal to submit to evaluation and therefore was not the fault of the state.
In response to Newman’s second petition arguing that the speedy-trial rule was violated, attorneys for the state argued that the filing of Newman’s May 2016 petition delayed his retrial. The period of time between the filing of that petition and the Supreme Court’s December ruling should not count in determining whether the speedy-trial rule had been violated because the delay was not the state’s fault, the state argued.
Cholette was killed Feb. 7, 2001. Her body was found in a tent at a transient camp known as the Benny Billy camp. Cholette was wearing only a shirt and wrapped in several blankets when her body was found Feb. 15, 2001.
According to court records, Cholette’s sexual organs and anus had been severely mutilated and her nipples were cut off. Foreign material had been placed inside her pelvic area. Her jawbone was broken, and her dental plate was lodged in her throat. Her throat was cut, and there were several stab wounds in her chest.
Her sternum had been cut open and there was a large, gaping wound from her chest to her pelvic bone. Her pelvic bone had been cut through. There also was evidence of defensive wounds that indicated Cholette put up a struggle before she died, the records said.