From the desk of the Arkansas Attorney General

February 13-19, 2017

Schnarr v. State: Developing the law in three areas

Leslie Rutledge
Arkansas Attorney General

The Arkansas Supreme Court’s recent decision in Schnarr v. State, CR 16-165, is an important decision for prosecutors, defense counsel and jurists to review. The Court addressed three noteworthy issues.  

First, the defendant argued that his victim was acting in an aggressive and life-threatening manner when the defendant shot the victim. As part of this defense, defendant sought to introduce several past instances where the victim acted violently. The defendant’s theory was essentially that the jury could, from this past evidence, surmise that the victim also acted violently in the present situation. The circuit court excluded the evidence and the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the exclusion. The Court explained that, under Arkansas Rule of Civil Procedure 405 and the Court’s precedents, specific past acts of the victim may not be introduced for the purpose of trying to prove that the victim acted in conformity therewith on this occasion. While the Rule allows introduction of testimony regarding the victim’s general reputation for violence, the Rule excludes the use of specific past acts because such evidence is both less informative and more prejudicial to the jury.  

Second, the defendant requested a jury instruction on negligent homicide and imperfect self-defense. The circuit court denied those instructions, and the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the denial. The Court explained that the defendant was not entitled to a negligent homicide instruction because he admitted he intentionally pulled the trigger. And the defendant was not entitled to the imperfect self-defense instruction because there was no evidence to suggest that the defendant formed even a reckless or negligent  belief that his life was in danger. The Court found it particularly important that the defendant knew the victim was not armed and the defendant conceded that the victim had not threatened him with bodily harm.  

Third, the Arkansas Supreme Court did find merit in the defendant’s remaining challenge. The defendant argued that his family members had been excluded from the courtroom by the bailiff during jury selection and that this exclusion violated the defendant’s right to a public trial. While a member of the press and a member of the bar were in the courtroom during jury selection, the Supreme Court felt a “closure” of the courtroom nonetheless occurred because the three family members were excluded. After surveying caselaw from other states and federal courts, our Court set forth a factorial balancing test to determine if a closure amounts to a deprivation of the constitutional right to a public trial: (1) the length of the closure, (2) the significance of the proceedings that took place while the court was closed and (3) the scope of the closure. The Court found that a closure of two and a half hours weighed in favor of finding a constitutional violation. Further, the Court found that a closure during jury selection weighed in favor of finding a constitutional violation. Given these two factors, the Court concluded there was a constitutional violation even while acknowledging the closure was only partial and other members of the public were in the courtroom. Because of this conclusion, the Court remanded the case for a new trial.  

Leslie Rutledge is the 56th Attorney General of Arkansas. Elected on Nov. 4, 2014, she is the first woman and first Republican in Arkansas history to be elected to the office.