BENTONVILLE -- An attorney claimed a deputy prosecutor referred to him in front of a jury as a better rapist than his client.
Ben Catterlin made the statement Friday, shortly after a jury recommended his client Hunter De La Garza, 24, of Little Flock spend the remainder of his life in prison for raping a 10-year-old.
The panel deliberated for about six hours over two days and returned with a verdict Friday finding De La Garza guilty of rape.
De La Garza worked for the Northwest Arkansas Children's Shelter and was accused of raping the girl in a bathroom during an outing to the Pinnacle Hills Promenade Mall in Rogers.
Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren was ready to sentence De La Garza when Catterlin asked the judge to delay the sentencing.
Catterlin wanted time to file a motion for a new trial and to give De La Garza time to look into any ineffective assistance of counsel concerns.
Catterlin said Joshua Robinson, senior deputy prosecutor, had referred to him in a closing statement as a better rapist than De La Garza.
"All I ask for is civility," Catterlin said.
He described the remark as prosecutorial misconduct and said Robinson's statement had stained the entire trial.
Robinson denied referring to Catterlin as a better rapist than his client, but said De La Garza's lawyer knew better ways to rape a child.
Robinson denied the comment equalled prosecutorial misconduct.
Catterlin responded the remark prejudiced the jury against De La Garza, and pointed at Catterlin as being able to rape someone better than his client.
Karren denied the motion for the new trial, but had pointed words while looking directly at Robinson. Karren said he noticed the lack of congeniality and respect among attorneys and those actions seem to be growing even though he's discussed the issues with attorneys.
The judge said he heard Robinson say De La Garza's lawyer knows better ways to rape than De La Garza does.
"I didn't appreciate it," Karren said. "I didn't like it."
Karren said in the future he will not only admonish attorneys, but will issue the warning to attorneys in front of a jury.
The jury for De La Garza's case was not present for this portion of the proceedings.
Robinson apologized to Karren and Catterlin.
"I got caught up in the heat of the moment and didn't mean to cause any disrespect," Robinson said.
Karren then continued with the sentencing.
He gave De La Garza an opportunity to speak before sentencing him. De La Garza maintained his innocence.
"I didn't do this," he said. "They can say whatever they want, but I didn't do this."
The girl testified Garza raped her in a bathroom during an outing to the Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers in February 2021.
The girl, during testimony Wednesday, said De La Garza pulled her into a stall in the restroom and closed the door. The girl said De La Garza took her shirt off and then her pants, then raped her.
She said De La Garza stopped because he thought someone was going to come into the restroom. De La Garza told her not to tell anyone about the incident, she said.
De La Garza testified in his defense and denied raping the girl. He told jurors he took the girl on the outing and heard her call for him while she was in the restroom. He checked on her and walked out and heard the girl washing her hands.
Prosecutors presented testimony from another girl, who was staying at the shelter, that De La Garza had sexual contact with her.
Another girl, who is 16 years old, testified Friday in sentencing proceedings that while staying at the shelter De La Garza had once rubbed her thigh when the two were alone in a car.
Karren followed the jury's recommendation and sentenced De La Garza to life imprisonment.
He ordered De La Garza to not have any contact with the three girls who testified during the trial.
Catterlin said he respects the sentence, but does not feel it is a fair one. He said he still plans to file a motion for a new trial.
Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said the jury gave De La Garza a life sentence for the rape of an innocent girl who should have been able to trust him.
"I hope this verdict brings a measure of healing to this survivor and serves as a warning to those who prey on children that juries in Benton County believe in strong punishment for these monstrous crimes," Smith said.