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GREG HARTON: Lawmakers should review limitations on trial phases

by Greg Harton | February 14, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

If I were a member of the Arkansas Legislature, I might have Isaiah Torres on my mind.

That is, if I could find the time. After all, last week the state Senate had to devote its limited time to debate an 11-page nonbinding resolution filed by two white Republican senators detailing what ought to be considered important about Black history. Condense those 11 pages to the political point of the resolution and you get this message: Democrats were racists, too.

Thankfully, the Senate voted 22-4 to reject the measure. It was a good vote on a mean-spirited waste of time.

•••

But why would 6-year-old Isaiah Torres be on anyone's mind? Beyond the fact that he'll never turn 7.

Last week, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Isaiah's father, 50-year-old Mauricio Alejandro Torres of Bella Vista, should be tried on charges of capital murder and battery in the youngster's death almost six years ago.

The strange thing is, two juries have already said Mauricio Torres is guilty of killing his son in a brutal case of abuse.

Trials such as his are divided into two parts. Evidence is first presented to prove whether he's guilty or not. If the jury finds him guilty, evidence is presented to help the jury recommend a sentence.

In Torres' first trial, he was sentenced to death, but got a new trial over problems with how his case was prosecuted.

In 2020, a new jury convicted him. However, in the sentencing phase, Torres' adult stepson, appearing as a witness, violently lunged toward Torres, disrupting the proceedings in front of the jury. That was enough, according to Circuit Judge Brad Karren and now the Supreme Court, to invalidate not just the sentencing process, but Torres' second guilty verdict.

What a frustrating outcome, forcing everyone to go through a new, painful trial. It'd be easy to get mad at the judiciary. But the judges are simply applying laws the state Legislature created for the handling of capital murder cases. Those laws say one jury must hear both the guilt and sentencing phases of the trial.

Why would the Legislature set up this one-jury mandate? The Supreme Court suggested it might be lawmakers wanted to give defendants the benefit of any "residual doubt" jurors might have after a conviction. It seems just as likely our Legislature might have assumed any jury willing to convict is more likely to impose a stricter sentence.

Had Judge Karren allowed the sentencing phase to continue to a decision, that might have been overturned on appeal. Strangely, though, in that circumstance, state law is clear that a defendant's appeal of a death penalty alleging an error in the sentencing phase does not overturn conviction in the guilt phase.

Since Torres' 2020 jury never got to reach a penalty decision, the Supreme Court said state law left no choice but to overturn the guilty verdict, too.

One could suggest the judge should have allowed the sentencing to continue, even if it constituted reversible error, so that the guilt phase could stand. Judges, however, have to do what the law requires.

So Mauricio Torres has gone from a man convicted of capital and sentenced to death, to a man not guilty, to a man convicted for one day before that conviction was tossed aside in a mistrial. And now, prosecutors must again call witnesses and present evidence to convince another jury of his guilt.

All because state law insists that one jury decides guilt or innocence, then decides the sentence.

Maybe there's good reason for that, but lawmakers certainly should debate it thoroughly. Should one witness' outburst be able to overturn a capital murder verdict? In that case, if I were found guilty of such a crime, I'd sure hope a witness would lunge at me.

I do know this: It ought not need three trials to deliver justice for young Isaiah Torres.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.

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