A 2013 road-rage incident that led to the death of one driver -- and three trials for the man who shot him -- resulted in a conviction that was overturned Thursday by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which sent the case back to circuit court.
In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that jurors in Chris Schnarr's third trial, in which he was convicted of manslaughter, were improperly barred from hearing instructions regarding Schnarr's arguments that he was justified in shooting Arista Lee "A.J." Aldridge Jr. during a confrontation in downtown Little Rock.
According to newspaper reports and court records, Aldridge failed to yield to Schnarr's vehicle that was exiting Interstate 30 one May afternoon in 2013.
The two men exchanged words while driving side by side. Aldridge then stopped in front of Schnarr's vehicle, got out and approached Schnarr. Schnarr, a concealed-carry permit holder, testified that he raised his handgun at Schnarr, told him to leave and then fired three shots when Aldridge continued to walk toward him.
Schnarr was originally charged with first-degree murder, but that trial ended in a mistrial. His second trial resulted in a manslaughter conviction that was overturned by the Supreme Court in early 2017 because the justices determined that Schnarr was denied his constitutional right to a public trial when members of his family were excluded from the courtroom during jury selection.
Schnarr was tried a third time in November 2017 and convicted again of manslaughter. He was given a three-year prison sentence. That conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court on Thursday.
On appeal, Schnarr's attorneys challenged the lack of jury instructions on a self-defense justification and the lesser charge of negligent homicide. The attorneys also challenged the lack of testimony about Aldridge's "character for acts of violence." The trial judge was Circuit Judge Leon Johnson.
In Thursday's decision, the majority of justices agreed with Schnarr that the jury should have been allowed to hear instructions regarding Schnarr's self-defense claim. They declined to reach a decision on the other points of his appeal.
"Simply put, it is for the jury to determine culpability, not the prosecutor," wrote Justice Karen Baker in the majority opinion.
Joining Baker in the majority were Justices Shawn Womack, Courtney Goodson and Josephine "Jo" Hart.
Two dissenting opinions were written by Justices Rhonda Wood and Robin Wynne. Chief Justice Dan Kemp joined in Wood's dissent.
Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley, in a phone call Thursday, said his office will likely decide next week whether to pursue a fourth trial in the case.
At Schnarr's last trial, prosecutors asked why Schnarr, a college student, did not simply drive away as Aldridge got out of his car.
"He shot because he wanted to," said the trial's prosecutor, Kelly Ward, according to newspaper accounts. Aldridge was unarmed.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated about two hours before finding Schnarr guilty of manslaughter.
In her dissent, Wood wrote that the facts of the case did not support the need for jury instruction for justified self-defense.
"A person is justified in using deadly force if the person reasonably believes that the other person is using or about to use unlawful deadly physical force," Wood wrote, citing Arkansas Code Annotated 5-2-607. "Schnarr is not entitled to a deadly-force justification instruction unless the evidence establishes that a reasonable person would have believed that the victim was about to use unlawful deadly force."
Lawyers for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office fought to uphold Schnarr's conviction on appeal. In a statement Thursday, Rutledge's office said the attorney general was "disappointed" in the decision and reviewing her options.
Schnarr's attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, said Thursday that he had spoken with his client, who he said was "gratified" by the decision.
"The proper thing to do is to give the jury all the law and allow the jury to apply the facts of the case," Rosenzweig said.
According to a spokesman for the Department of Community Correction, Schnarr was released on parole in May of this year.
Metro on 11/30/2018
Print Headline: State's high court overturns conviction in road-rage killing in downtown Little Rock