Cornell Huell entered a guilty plea in a capital murder case late last week in Hot Spring Circuit Court, a deal that will give him a 40-year sentence for first-degree murder and 16 years for attempted first-degree murder, to be served consecutively.

Huell, 24, of Malvern, pleaded guilty in the Feb. 16 shooting death of Jason Stovall at his Malvern home in what was described as a home invasion. Stovall’s girlfriend also was shot with her three young children present in the home. While awaiting trial, Huell escaped from the Hot Spring County Jail last April, but was recaptured a day later.

The plea bargain likely puts to rest an issue that had been developing in the case — an allegation in filings by defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig that the presiding Circuit Judge Chris Williams had discussed the case with Supreme Court Justices Karen Baker and Jo Hart. The Supreme Court action in the case included a refusal to grant a defense motion for a delay in the case to consider an “extraordinary” matter. According to court filings, two attorneys, Philip Wilson and Norman Frisby, said that, in the course of an informal conversation in his chambers June 19, Judge Williams mentioned he’d talked with two Supreme Court justices prior to the decision against the delay. Discussions on this allegation of a so-called ex parte communication, including testimony from the lawyers, had been the subject of debate in court filings, under seal until recently. The judge denied such a conversation had occurred, though he acknowledged talking informally with the justices at a judicial conference.

Judge Williams self-reported the allegation to the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, but no one filed a formal complaint and it is not under investigation. Had the case preceded to trial and a death sentence, it would have inevitably become a much larger issue. Judge Williams had declined to get off the case, despite a defense motion that he do so. The prosecuting attorney joined the recusal motion. According to defense filings, he also made statements that could be interpreted as threats of disciplinary retaliation against lawyers who made the allegations. Note that Justices Baker and Hart are not reflected as having recused from the order refusing the delay though the allegations about a discussion with them undergirded the request.