BY MELANIE BUCK –
The legal maneuvering of a death row inmate is continuing, over 15 years after his conviction by a Polk County jury. The Supreme Court of Arkansas has ruled that Polk County ‘erred’ in its findings that convicted murderer and rapist, Karl D. Roberts, has the ‘capacity to choose between life and death and to knowingly and intelligently waive his right to postconviction relief,” according to the most recent official opinion filed by the state’s highest court.
In May 2000, Roberts was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the murder and rape of his twelve-year-old niece, Andi Brewer, under the rule of Polk County Circuit Court Judge J.W. Looney. Following his conviction, Roberts filed a waiver of appeal and postconviction review. A hearing was held on the waiver, and Polk County Circuit Court found that Roberts had the capacity to knowingly and intelligently waive his appeal rights. The Arkansas Court of Appeals later affirmed that decision and upheld his conviction and sentence.
In May 2003, a hearing was held and again, Polk County Circuit Court concluded that Roberts had the capacity to waive his appeals rights, and again, the decision was upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court. However, in January 2004, on the day that Roberts was scheduled to be executed, he filed a stay of execution and it was granted.
Upon being granted the stay of execution, the opinion states, the stay is “for Roberts to be given an opportunity to convince the state courts that he did not competently waive his right to appeal and seek state post-conviction relief” and “to seek relief in the state courts under Rule 37.5 regarding all unexhausted claims.” Rule 37.5 deals with claims of ineffective counsel.
In January 2012, Roberts was back in Polk County Circuit Court and was again, found to hold the capacity to choose between life and death. In September 2013, Roberts appeared in Polk County Circuit Court and stated, “I would like to live but at the same time I am bound by law to take responsibility for the wrongs I’ve done. I’m ready to go.”
On December 29, 2014, the Polk County Circuit Court held a hearing on Roberts’ competency to waive further postconviction relief. At the hearing, Dr. Mark Peacock, a forensic psychologist from the Arkansas State Hospital, testified that he had conducted an evaluation of Roberts on January 29, 2014. Dr. Peacock testified that Roberts produced two clinical scale elevations in depression and suicidality and that Roberts had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Dr. Peacock also testified that, “Roberts seemed suspicious at times during the interview and that Roberts had experienced hallucinations but that he appeared adequately groomed and ‘could discuss things rationally at times.’” Again, Roberts was deemed capable.
In his latest appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Roberts states the basis of his appeal of his own competency is that the circuit court failed to make sufficient findings of facts and conclusions of law sufficient to allow for meaningful appellate review; that the circuit court’s conclusion that he is competent to knowingly and intelligently waive all rights to postconviction relief and has the capacity to choose between life and death is clearly erroneous and that the circuit court substituted its opinion for that of the experts who testified at the postconviction hearing. Roberts also argues that the Arkansas Supreme Court should establish a mandatory postconviction proceeding and review for death-penalty defendants who waive their postconviction rights. He also claims the Supreme Court should reverse Polk County Circuit Court’s acceptance of his waiver under the “solid footing” doctrine.
The latest opinion describes the alleged ‘err’ in Polk County’s rulings. “The circuit court failed to provide any meaningful analysis of the six issues that Roberts presented to the circuit court before his competency-to-waive hearing. Without this analysis and specific written findings of fact and conclusions of law, I do not know the circuit court’s rationale for its finding of competency. Because the circuit court provided merely conclusory rulings, we cannot engage in any meaningful review of Roberts’s competency to waive postconviction proceedings.”
The Arkansas Supreme Court was split on the decision 4-3. The next step in Roberts’ case is expected to come back to Polk County Circuit Court for a Rule 37.5 hearing, but the date has not yet been set.