Mara Leveritt reports from Ashdown on the murder trial of Tim Howard, former Death Row inmate:
A jury of six men and six women was seated today for the trial of Tim Howard which is to begin Monday. In a subsequent pretrial hearing, for which the jury was not present, Circuit Judge Charles Yeargan denied the motion filed last week by Howard’s attorney that had sought dismissal of the charges against Howard due to alleged prosecutor misconduct.
“I don’t find any merit to your motion, ” Yeargan told Patrick Benca. In the motion, Benca had complained that Prosecutor Bryan Chesshir had on at least a few occasions questioned two witnesses together. Benca argued that under Arkansas law, “you can’t do that. “
Chesshir vigorously rejected the claim, telling the court that “this motion was filed to discredit me as a prosecutor just as we are getting ready to try the biggest case this county has seen in the past 18 years.”
The disagreement grew heated. At one point, the court reporter asked the attorneys for silence because she could not hear “when everyone is speaking at once.” At another, Benca asked, “that the record reflect that Mr. Chesshir is screaming in here.”
Yeargan, looking like a weary parent, told the attorneys to “hush” and use their “indoor” voices.
Emotions ran high because attorneys on both sides of the case felt insulted. Chesshir complained that Benca had characterized him as a “crook,” and Benca reacted to Chesshir’s charge that his motion was filed unethically, “strictly for purposes of publicity.”
“I’m not finding you to be unethical, Mr. Benca,” Judge Yeargan said. “And Mr. Chesshir, I’m not finding you to be a crook.”
Howard was convicted of killing Brian and Shannon Day in Little River County in 1997. His conviction was eventually overturned because a prosecutor had withheld lab evidence about DNA in the case. It’s been the subject of several reports over the years in the Arkansas Times.
This writer’s reports on the case arose as an issue during both jury selection and the hearing that followed. Chesshir noted that all potential jurors were asked if they read the Arkansas Times on paper or online. Several said they did, Cheshire said, “and I asked that every one of them be struck, due to the slanted nature of the way that paper is printed.”
While Yeargan has allowed me to remain in the court room, despite the possibility that the prosecutor may call me as a witness, my role in this trial is contentious.
As I intend to continue to report on it, I will take this opportunity to alert readers to my related interest and involvement in this case, which I have covered for the past 13 years.
Over that time, Tim Howard and I have become friends, a fact I have previously acknowledged in print. A member of my family has also befriended Howard and his wife Vicky.
When Vickie Howard was subpoenaed for questioning by Chesshir, that relative paid to have an attorney accompany her – a point that the prosecutor raised in court today. (I also hired an attorney to be present when Chesshir subpoenaed me for an interview, and to contest a second subpoena that could have kept me from being able to report on the case.)
I relate this so readers will know where I stand in order to draw their own conclusions about my credibility.
The short of it is that the second trial of a man who has spent almost 18 years under a sentence of death is about to begin, and, as it happens, the only reporter in the courtroom today was the one who writes for you here, under these unlikely circumstances.